Some time ago I decided to watch through and analyze the skeletal filmography of Andrew Dominik, watching through all three of his movies in the order in which he made them. After starting with the brilliant and weird Chopper, the filmmaking debut of Andrew Dominik and the big screen debut of Eric Bana, the next movie in his filmography was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Part of why it took me this long to get to is simple – this movie is many things, but short and exciting is not one of them. It’s a slow, atmospheric movie clocking in at two and half hours. Apparently there’s a still unreleased director’s cut to boot. While I’ve talked to a few people who found the movie unwatchable because of its length and pacing, I am not one of them. I found the film thoroughly engaging and incredibly beautiful. It’s also loaded with meaning, which also delayed this article. I knew I had to watch this movie twice to really analyze it. If anything I walked away wishing I could’ve watched it a third or even fourth time before really trying to crack its skull open and play around with what’s on its mind.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a stupendous movie. Directed by Andrew Dominik and starring some of my favourite actors (and Jeremy Renner) it’s a long period piece delving into the relationship between Jesse James and his eventual killer, Robert Ford. Dominik brought in Roger Deakins as cinematographer on this film. The frequent Coen Brother’s collaborator brings his A-game, filling the movie with some of the greatest visuals of his career. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide a wonderful soundtrack. The movie is a melancholy exploration of fame, idol worship, violence, anger, public perception, obsession, and more.
Andrew Dominik so clearly draws on the cinematic language of Stanley Kubrick. He draws on more than just that, just as Kubrick would draw on the vestiges of cinema for his inspiration. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has been compared to the work of Terence Malick, has visual references to Gladiator, and generally exists as its own beast, different from anything Kubrick has done. That’s not where Dominik’s Kubrickian affectation comes through. What seems most plucked from the great director is simply the way Dominik wants to convey his themes. Like Kubrick he wants to distance you from the film and let it wash over you, affecting you on levels you aren’t entirely aware of. He wants his themes to be felt, rather than understood. Given that, in my humble opinion, Kubrick’s choices on this front are so brilliant, so incredible, so breathtakingly powerful, I’m incredibly happy to see another director interested in this same technique. I think it’s an extraordinary filmmaking technique that only a few directors are capable of imitating.
So like one of Kubrick’s movies The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has layers worth peeling back and exploring. There are nuances and tones and hinted at meanings worth dissecting in great detail. So that’s, quite simply, what I’ll attempt to do.
PART I: INTRODUCING THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
First I’d like to talk about the simple, obvious attributes of this film.
For one, the cast. The film stars Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Garret Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Renner, and Paul Schneider. Each one gives a performance nothing short of brilliant. Brad Pitt is always amazing, and his depiction of Jesse James is no exception. Brad Pitt perfectly encapsulates the character’s seething anger, rampant paranoia, and powerful charisma. When he’s onscreen he’s incredibly captivating. A sad, troubled figure. Pitt feels like he was born to play the role, and he fills it to the brim with ease. He’s pretty much outshined by Casey Affleck though. Ben Affleck’s intensely talented younger brother gives a performance so incredible it’s almost ridiculous. He plays the complexly deranged Robert Ford. A socially awkward, snivelling sycophant at times, a self styled badman at others. A man that hates Jesse James as much as he loves him. He’s constantly shifting, fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, and frequently seems like he’s on the verge of tears. Other times he adopts this veneer he can’t help but lose the second Jesse appears. An deranged, tortured, labyrinthine psyche conveyed with incredible skill. Then we get to the second fiddle actors, comprised of several personal favourites. They almost all play people who live in Jesse James’ shadow. Mainly ignorant, passive followers as scared of Jesse James as they are filled with delusions of grandeur. Sam Rockwell plays Robert Ford’s older brother, a dumb cowardly man that Jesse can control with ease. Garret Dillahunt, one of the most underrated actors ever, plays an even dumber character, one who seems scared of what he’s gotten himself into. Mary-Louise Parker plays James’ wife, and her few scenes, alternating between devotion to Jesse and mistrust of Robert, are incredibly evocative despite their brevity. Jeremy Renner, in all seriousness, gives a great performance as Jesse James’ cousin. He’s one of the harder, tougher members of Jesse’s gang. Even if he’s quick to quaveringly remind his colleagues of who his cousin is. Paul Schneider plays one of the more thematically varied and important of the group. He’s by far the smartest and most independent of the gang, even going so far as to plot behind Jesse’s back. He’s all adopted veneer and manipulation, and Schneider captures it perfectly. The whole cast is wonderful, completely disappearing into their respective roles.
The film’s soundtrack is amazing. Nick Cave and his pianist, Warren Ellis, composed it. Nick Cave is, of course, the artist behind awesome albums like Murder Ballads and one of the coolest songs ever, “Red Right Hand.” Their awesome soundtrack falls on the spectrum between carnival music and mournful dirges. It lends a lot to an already fiercely atmospheric movie. Nick Cave also has a great cameo as a sort of minstrel, singing a song of Jesse James assassination.
Perhaps the most notable single contribution to the film comes from Roger Deakins. His cinematography is so incredible, so evocative, so rich and brilliant. The movie would be a must see for his imagery alone. One of the film’s most lauded sequences comes early. The James’ gang robs a train during the nighttime. It’s the only time in the whole movie we see the gang in action. It’s the closest the movie comes to looking like a conventional western. The entire scene is stark and inky black, lit only by the light of the train’s front. It’s a monumentally stunning scene in a movie filled with gorgeous imagery. Stark winter landscapes and beautiful blowing grasses and blurry “pillow shots” (spaces devoid of humanity used to transition from scene to scene). It’s luxurious and depressing and painterly.
The editing of the film is also wonderful. Almost perfectly invisible, which is the ideal. Dylan Tichenor, one of the two credited editors, is presumably responsible for a lot of this. His other credits include There Will be Blood, Zero Dark Thirty, Brokeback Mountain, and The Royal Tennenbaums. He’s no slouch, and truly the editing in this movie helps engross you fully in the world displayed.
PART II: HERO WORSHIP
The first and most obvious layer of meaning in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has to do with fame. If you want to put it simply. It’s not simple though, it’s incredibly complex. Andrew Dominik packs the film full of meaning regarding fame, as seen through the lens of historical significance.
The film follows Jesse James’ relationship with Robert Ford. Ford is obsessed with Jesse. He collects books and memorabilia related to him. He has an encyclopedic memory of the similarities the two men share. Before he kills Jesse, Ford wonders through the man’s home. He sits in his bed, drinks his water, imagines he’s missing a fingertip and is scarred by bullets. But he also hates Jesse. Ford seems possessed, on some level, by the conviction that he should be Jesse James. Maybe that he deserves it more. Jesse scares him. He’s at his most nervous and neurotic and angry near the man. His temper is short when it comes to Jesse James’ mocking and manipulation. His actions seem to scream of a desire to be Jesse, but not just to be Jesse, to replace him, to be more Jesse James than Jesse ever was.
“Can’t figure it out: do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” Jesse asks of Bob Ford. Over the course of the movie Bob starts to dress more and more like Jesse. After he kills a man for the first time, after he’s composed himself, he leans against the wall, grinning and dangling his gun, adopting a new swagger. He wants nothing more than to know that he and Jesse are cut from the same cloth, when nothing could be further from the truth. Bob gets shut down by Jesse’s brother, Frank, early in the film. “Well, I’m sorry to hear you feel that way, as I put such stock in your opinion. As for me being a gunslinger, I’ve just got this one granddaddy Paterson Colt and a borrowed belt to stick it in. But I also got an appetite for greater things. I hoped by joining up with you, it’d put me that much closer to getting them.” An appetite for greater things seems to be the key. Bob Ford wants to be famous, wants to be a household name.
Jesse James: Give me some more conversations, Bob.
Charley Ford: I got one. This one’s about as crackerjack.
Jesse James: Let Bob tell it.
Robert Ford: I don’t even know what you’re talking about.
Charley Ford: About how much you and Jesse have in common.
Jesse James: Go on, Bob.
Charley Ford: Tell a story.
Robert Ford: Nope. Nope.
Charley Ford: Entertain Jesse. He’s here.
Robert Ford: Well, if you’ll pardon my saying so, I guess it is interesting, the many ways you and I overlap and whatnot. You begin with our Daddies. Your daddy was a pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church; my daddy was a pastor of a church at Excelsior Springs. Um. You’re the youngest of the three James boys; I’m the youngest of the five Ford boys. Between Charley and me, is another brother, Wilbur here, with six letters in his name; between Frank and you was a brother, Robert, also with six letters. Robert is my Christian name. You have blue eyes; I have blue eyes. You’re five feet eight inches tall. I’m five feet eight inches tall. Oh me, I must’ve had a list as long as your nightshirt when I was twelve, but I’ve lost some curiosities over the years.
Jesse James: [stares at Bob for a long time, smiles] Ain’t he something.
As the movie goes on though, Robert Ford’s love of Jesse, his obsession with Jesse, slowly starts to turn to resentment. As Jesse routinely mistreats and bullies Bob he becomes more aware of the pecking order. He becomes increasingly aware that he’s only a tool to Jesse, a pawn, a nothing. That he’s not ever going to be his equal. He’s not going to be famous or loved as a result of this relationship. Especially after Jesse sends him off, this bitter realization starts to grow within him. “I’ve lost some curiosities over the year.” Bob is done with loving Jesse by that point in the movie. Instead he’s angry. Bob’s brother cautions him against crossing Jesse later in the film, reminding him of the man’s reputation. Asking Bob to believe in the legend again, to consider the danger Jesse poses. “He’s just a human being,” Bob remarks, his transformation from idolizer to usurper complete. He can only see Jesse as a stepping stone, an obstacle, a tool to his own fame.
Robert Ford is blinded by his quest for fame, and ultimately his desires deceive him. He may be famous after killing Jesse, but he’s famously hated. He’s not loved, or respected, or even feared. Some of the public is fascinated by him, a few even support what he did, but most despise him for killing their hero. Seeking fame above all else is presented as a quixotic goal in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Even Jesse James himself, more famous than Robert Ford will ever be, is tortured by his notoriety. There’s no sign that he was seeking fame the way Ford was, but he’s every bit as tortured by it. Whereas Ford deals with public hate and regret, and defines himself by others’ perceptions of him, internalizing their hatred of his actions, Jesse is driven mad by the obvious side effects of a life of crime. He’s paranoid. Perpetually on the run, seeing ominous spectres in every corner. He regrets his killings. “Look at my red hands and my mean face… and I wonder ’bout that man that’s gone so wrong.” Jesse sees the change in Robert too, but almost suicidally allows it, or perhaps lies about it to himself. “You’re giving me signs that grieve my soul and make me wonder if maybe your mind’s been changed about me.”
Perhaps the greatest ironies of Robert Ford’s search for fame become apparent after he’s killed Jesse. The movie takes almost another half an hour to tell us of Robert’s life after his assassination. The mysterious narrator (more on that later) tells us about Ford’s mental state:
He was ashamed of his boasting, his pretensions of courage and ruthlessness. He was sorry about his cold-bloodedness, his dispassion, his inability to express what he now believed was the case: That he truly regretted killing Jesse, that he missed the man as much as anybody, and wished his murder hadn’t been necessary.
That’s not even the harshest blow dealt to Ford – that comes after he’s assassinated.
Edward O’Kelly came up from Bachelor at one P.M. on the 8th. He had no grand scheme. No strategy. No agreement with higher authorities. Nothing but a vague longing for glory, and a generalized wish for revenge against Robert Ford. Edward O’Kelly would be ordered to serve a life sentence in the Colorado Penitentiary for second degree murder. Over seven thousand signatures would eventually be gathered in a petition asking for O’Kelly’s release, and in 1902, Governor James B. Ullman would pardon the man. There would be no eulogies for Bob, no photographs of his body would be sold in sundries stores, no people would crowd the streets in the rain to see his funeral cortege, no biographies would be written about him, no children named after him, no one would ever pay twenty-five cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in. The shotgun would ignite, and Ella Mae would scream, but Robert Ford would only lay on the floor and look at the ceiling, the light going out of his eyes before he could find the right words.
Bob dies hated, forgotten. Jesse dies a hero of the people. An icon.
Robert Ford’s envious desire for fame at the level the James’ brothers enjoy is proved fruitless, foolish, and destructive.
PART III: SELF IMAGE
The characters in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford almost all delude themselves. Or they mask their true thoughts about their actions.
Jesse James doesn’t see himself as a hero the way others do, he sees himself as a criminal. Not only does he regret his actions he’s plainly driven to suicidal tendencies. Jesse knows Ford is going to betray him. More than that he sees Robert draw his gun to kill him, and he bows his head in acceptance. In Jesse’s mind he deserves what’s coming to him. It’s Jesse that tells Bob Ford all the stories written about him are lies. The narrator both hints at and denies these changes in Jesse. (Again, more on this potentially unreliable narrator later.)
He was growing into middle age, and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on their two children. His children knew his legs, the sting of his mustache against their cheeks. They didn’t know how their father made his living, or why they so often moved. They didn’t even know their father’s name. He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard. And he went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or a commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious, lest that mutilation be seen. He also had a condition that was referred to as “granulated eyelids” and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies, nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was thirty-four-years-old.
Someone who doesn’t regret his actions doesn’t placidly allow his lethal punishment. Jesse even ruminates on suicide with Bob’s brother.
“You ever consider suicide?”
He follows this up with
“I’ll tell you one thing that’s certain; you won’t fight dying once you’ve peeked over to the other side; you’ll no more want to go back to your body than you’d want to spoon up your own puke.”