Directed by Andrew Dominik
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an audacious title, right? It reads like a newspaper headline in all caps, and the two and a half hour film is broken up with narration from the point of view of an unknown journalist or biographer.
The story accelerates through time, from when 19 year old Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) meets Jesse James (Brad Pitt) to Ford’s own death, ten years after he assassinates James. The pacing feels a bit uneven, at least at first before you may (like me) fall under the film’s spell.
We observe short scenes with various members of the ensemble cast (including Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Schneider) before the narrator jumps in and tells us what we need to know. This gives the movie an episodic feel, with the momentum starting and stalling, before the internal rhythm takes over.
That framing device is a bit strange on the surface. It’s hard to place who the narrator is supposed to be or what he’s supposed to be. Is he a journalist, a biographer, a relative or something more omniscient? Voiced by assistant editor Hugh Ross, the narrator is somehow as enigmatic as Jesse James is when we first meet him.
Ross’ voice over first introduces us to these characters, but soon he delves into the inner workings of their mind, explaining to us how they think, what they fear, etc. The narrator is privy to some kind of information none of the rest of us have. His words become more probing and begin to carry more weight as the story carries on. It’s as if he’s a journalist who becomes a psychologist who becomes God.
The whole movie, I want to say, follows this kind of progression. We start with the surface level details, the facts and what we know. There was a legendary outlaw named Jesse James. As time wore on, his gang fell apart until all he had left was his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) and a patched together group of men which included Robert’s brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), with Robert tagging along.
We see James through Robert Ford’s eyes. He’s a folk hero, but soon he gets to know James more intimately, thus allowing the narration to progress as well. Instead of explaining what Ford would’ve read about James from afar, it explains what he sees and perceives from close proximity.
The narrator will tell us about the way James blinks more than usual, about his sunken eyes and his various injuries and scarred bullet wounds. It’s at this point that the film loses any semblance of a plot and becomes a tug of war between James and Ford.
You get the sense that Ford is stealing something from James as he looks at him. He wants something from him at the very beginning, whether it’s simply attention, wisdom or even James’ own identity. As James says to Ford one day, pretty early on into their relationship, he can’t tell if Ford wants to be like him or to simply be him.
Ford’s love for James is volatile, the type of thing that could and would be weaponized. When we see him sidle up to Frank, before he meets Jesse, we can see just how frightening Ford is. He wants something, and if he doesn’t get it, he’s likely to act out.
Ford is, in other words, like Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. He’s any other would-be assassin, someone for whom there is a fine line between love and hate. Though he never consciously thinks this, Ford must know that by killing Jesse James he will forever tie himself to his hero. By the end of the film that is exactly what happens.
Ford is a bit of a creep, a tortured soul who has trouble making personal connections. At the same time Jesse James is no hero. We’re made to understand just how brutal James could be. We’re reminded that he killed women and children, and somewhere in the middle of the film we see him nearly rip off a boy’s ear. He’s a monster, tormented much as Ford is.
As the story moves on, Jesse James kills one member of his gang, paranoid that he might talk to the authorities, and soon the rest of the gang gets nervous that James might be lurking about, ready to knock them out as well.
There is a real gravity to Affleck’s and Pitt’s performances. The latter half of the movie concerns their mutual insanity. Ford remains drawn to James, even as the outlaw experiences drastic mood changes and violent outbursts. He is increasingly unstable, and we’re shown that Ford only assassinated James because he feared for his own life.
But is that why? Or is it that we can never really understand why he killed him? Any reasoning offered by this film, of course, is only conjecture, and even Ford himself questions why he did it or if he needed to.
Early on in the film, Ford kills James’ cousin, Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), and right as he fires the fatal shot, his face goes frighteningly blank. He saves a friend in the process, but it’s strikingly clear that he didn’t kill Wood to save anyone else. He did it with some kind of morbid fascination, something that might make him feel more like Jesse James.
Robert Ford, it seems, does want to be Jesse James, answering the question posed to him earlier in the film. He’s a kid without much of an identity so he absorbs the one of his hero. Throughout the film he is often lurking about, leaning against doorways as if afraid to commit to anything. He peeks into rooms (as when he watches Jesse James bathe), or he leans back against the doorframe as if looking for a quick way out. He is constantly straddling the fence.
Eventually Ford’s childhood wish comes true, and he’s effectively a member of James’ gang. What he finds is a frightening individual, and because Ford wanted so badly to be him, he must surely be questioning what will become of himself. Their fates are tied, in other words.
You can almost see Robert Ford melting from flying too close to the sun. As the movie moves forward, the narration seems to offer contradicting information on Jesse James, but it’s really just Ford’s perspective. At first we learn of James the folk hero, then James the person, and now, when Ford is closest to him, we see the deep recesses of James’ own mind, the parts of his soul he can’t hide from those closest to him.
So all along James has been this frightening creature, but it’s only now that Ford bears witness to it. He and his brother Charley begin to lose all composure, sure that James believes they have talked to the police and that he will kill them.
When Ford does finally shoot James, we’re shown that it’s as if James wanted to die. He willingly removed his gun belt, then offered his back to Ford as if in sacrifice as he dusts off a photograph. Ford pulls out his gun and shoots him, and afterwards he collapses on the couch, reluctant to move as if all his life force has been drained from his own body.
Without James in the picture Ford slowly dissolves into nothing. The final twenty or so minutes of the film fly through the next ten years of Ford’s life, explaining to us how he continued to struggle with his decision to kill his hero and how the rest of the world turned on him as well.
Even at this point I don’t really know how to talk about this movie. Maybe everything up until now is a futile attempt to describe the story which feels quite unimportant. This is a long movie in which the climactic moment is announced to us in the title. We know where this is all headed, and because of a familiarity with characters like Travis Bickle (or even someone like Mark David Chapman), we understand Robert Ford to some degree. We’ve seen that character, the one who loves something so much he kills it. It’s not too unlike Lennie from Of Mice and Men.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a poem, a damn long one. It’s beautiful, though I know that’s subjective. I was taken with the ominous and melancholic music, the cinematography, even the narration which in its plainness feels quite profound. It’s this guy, literally the assistant editor, explaining away these two characters deep psyches with the intentioned objectivity of a court reporter. This is what happened, that’s all, goodbye.
The narration and the music seems to contradict each other, and I think that dichotomy shows up throughout the film. There is a balance between what we know from afar and what we might know were we as close to the characters as we eventually are in this film. What can you really know about someone?
It’s certainly also about celebrity and the inherent gap between that celebrity and the real person. It’s as if there’s something almost magical in that gap between legend and human. One is who others want you to be, and the other is who you are. Because you inevitably don’t live up to that legend, you must have failed. Jesse James let Robert Ford down by being the monster he was all along. Even though Ford (and the audience) knew of James’ crimes, he somehow still manages to let him down by not being who Ford wanted. Maybe he didn’t end up being who we wanted as well. Played by Brad Pitt, Jesse James is captivating, handsome and seemingly fully present. He is larger than life, and he seems too honorable to have done what Jesse James did. Then we watch as Pitt’s performance becomes more pronounced, more over the top, and Jesse James the legend washes away revealing Jesse James the fragile, unstable, violent person.
The end of the film, in some ways, mirrors the beginning. Instead of discussing Jesse James the legend, we’re discussing Robert Ford the legend, something he never wanted to become despite what he may have thought as a child but something he falls victim to nonetheless.
Up Next: Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Steel Helmet (1951), Contagion (2011)