“Can’t figure it out; do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?”
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not just a biographical drama, but an emotional examination of the human psyche. The film follows Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt, on the tail end of his infamous crime campaign. Accompanied by the Ford brothers, Robert (Affleck) and Charley (Rockwell), Jesse James’s paranoid final days are cataloged in an artfully crafted and insightful narrative.
Story and Character Depth
One aspect of the film that makes this movie stand out is the development and depth of the characters. The well written story is elevated by an outstanding cast. Each character is unique and grounded in a way that makes their situation understandable and carry more emotional weight. Even though we are following a band of (mostly) ruthless criminals; we still see their insecurities, moments of compassion, fear, and several other humanistic features that tend to be glazed over in film. Films with characters that are both written in a way that gives them depth and portrayed in a well executed manner are few and far between.
Each character is well-defined and consistent throughout the film. There is still character development, but each character stands alone and is not simply there to help tell the story of the principle roles. Perhaps this is due to the fact that The Assassination of Jesse James is based on an in-depth book written by Ron Hansen. The small details written into the screenplay and the way the narration sequences meticulously outline details of the story, only help to reinforce the “realistic” telling of the story. This “realism” in turn makes the film more engaging.
Was Robert Ford a Coward?
Another benefit to the complex character development is that it makes the story less black and white. The first question that comes up by the end of the film is, “Was Robert Ford actually a coward?” The film succeeds in showing how Jesse James’ criminal activity made him a beloved folk hero. In a time when life expectancy was lower and daily life was full of the mundane, following someone like Jesse James would be exciting. This can be seen over and over again in the way that Robert Ford idolized Jesse James his entire life. His obsession overwhelmed him led him to be uncomfortable and embarrassed to the point that he became disillusioned.
His eagerness to please Jesse James and desire to recognized and accepted by him is what ultimately led him to disappointment. His misguided and immature nature is what would inevitably lead him to turn on his idol. At least, this is how it appears to unfold in the film.
By the time we get to the “assassination” it is clear that Jesse James is consumed with paranoia, and rightfully so. Constantly having to move around, living under a false name, insomnia, always looking over your shoulder, would get to anyone. When James finds out that members of his gang have been captured and questioned it makes sense that he would be at the end of his rope. One interpretation of the assassination could simply be an assisted suicide. Robert Ford could have simply been doing him a favor.
His eagerness to be famous and recognized probably led him to cash in on killing Jesse James. Once the circumstances of Jesse James death were heard nationwide, and scrutinized, it is not surprising that the public might view the situation as cowardly. An exciting story of an outlaw coming to an end by a friend shooting you in the back, while unarmed, is less than a thrilling end.
If you look through the eyes of someone who saw the tales of Jesse James as feats of bravery or courageous, then it would make sense that the nature of his assassination and the pompous aftermath of the assassin would be seen as cowardice. To call Jesse James brave would not be because of his heroism, but for his fearlessness, nerve, and willingness to pursue a life against the grain. This idea obviously downplays the murderous and destructive nature of his actions and excludes those that saw him and everything he stood for as a dangerous plague.
In an age where widespread notoriety and fame was rare, it is not surprising that someone would take advantage of any opportunity to elevate themselves. Although, I do not think Robert Ford was a coward. If anything he was desperate. Desperate for attention, respect, excitement, and anything else a 20-year-old might seek. In the end who was the real folk hero the murderous outlaw or the average countryman that took him down?
Outlaws vs. Celebrities
It is interesting to think about what the equivalent would be to a character like Jesse James in modern times. The idea that widespread public and media would glorify someone who, on paper, is a negative aspect of society has always existed. This is the life blood of entertainment and fodder for news outlets and social media. It is almost impossible to avoid the consumerist marketing and vanity fueled rat race that is American society. While this is not the same as someone murdering and stealing their way through the countryside, it still an ambivalent infliction that our society eats up.
The camera work by legendary cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and Director, Andrew Dominik, is outstanding. The same emotional connection that can be seen in each character’s design and execution by the actor can also be seen in the camera work. From the creative use of light to mimic a time before electricity to the dreamlike, and narrated, sequences that emphasize a detour into the minds of the characters.
I am surprised that this film was under the radar back in 2007. Perhaps this was because There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men also came out the same year. The Assassination of Jesse James is a vastly underestimated film.
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Screenplay by: Andrew Dominik
Runtime: 2h 40m
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Distributed by: Warner Bros.