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 it 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.
This is part two of that dissection.
PART III: SELF IMAGE cont.
A big part of Andrew Dominik’s examination of self-image in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has to do with the difference between a character’s self image and others’ perception of them. Jesse James (Brad Pitt) doesn’t think of himself as a hero, but others do. Instead he’s tortured and driven to suicidal behaviour by his past.
The flip side of that is Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). Bob Ford considers himself a burgeoning gunslinger and hero. When Bob introduces himself to Jesse James older brother Frank, Frank immediately takes a disliking to him:
You’re not so special, Mr. Ford. You’re just like any other tyro who’s prinked himself up for an escapade, hoping to be a gunslinger like them nickel books are about. You may as well quench your mind of it, because you don’t have the ingredients, son.
This seems to legitimately catch Robert Ford off guard. Frank’s comments seem to run completely contrary to Ford’s image of himself:
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.
Robert Ford really considers himself a vagabond. A gunslinger. A Hero. But he’s alone in that thought. As the movie goes along he seems to be increasingly forced to confront his unheroic attributes. Bob Ford even introduces himself to Frank by addressing this issue:
Folks sometimes take me for a nincompoop on account of the shabby first impression I make, whereas I’ve always thought of myself as being just a rung down from the James Brothers. And I was hoping if I ran into you aside from those peckerwoods, I was hoping I could show you how special I am. I honestly believe I’m destined for great things, Mr. James. I’ve got qualities that don’t come shining through right at the outset, but give me a chance and I’ll get the job done – I can guarantee you that.
Bob Ford just thinks he can’t communicate properly. Thinks that his lack of past adventures keeps him from ascending to the role he deserves. He views helping Jesse James as his opportunity, his chance to prove his worth.
I’ve been a nobody all my life. I was the baby; I was the one they made promises to that they never kept. And ever since I can recall it, Jesse James has been as big as a tree. I’m prepared for this, Jim. And I’m going to accomplish it. I know I won’t get but this one opportunity and you can bet your life I’m not going to spoil it.
Robert Ford, as I’ve previously discussed, is driven by his desire for fame. His mentality is all too common; an outcast who believes that if everyone just gave him a chance he’d be as cool as all their heroes. Except that Robert Ford is what he seems. He’s a snivelling, manic, messed up guy. He occasionally adopts a certain swagger, but almost always has that mask cast aside. Instead of looking inward he rages outwards. He doesn’t contemplate the idea that the problem is him, he just gets increasingly angry at everyone else for treating him like a piece of shit. Even his hero thinks he’s worthless. There’s a scene in the movie where Jesse James describes the robbery he plans to commit with Ford. When he describes threatening a cashier he grabs Ford and holds a knife to his throat, directing his threats at Ford instead of the fictitious cashier:
I’ll say ‘How come an off-scouring of creation like you is still sucking air when so many of mine are in coffins?’ I’ll say ‘How’d you reach your twentieth birthday without leaking out all over your clothes?’ And if I don’t like his attitude, I’ll slit that phildoodle so deep he’ll flop on the floor like a fish.
It’s a chilling scene, and it’s important that shortly after this altercation Robert Ford works up the nerve to shoot Jesse and claim his fame.
Perhaps one of the characters most illustrative of this thematic concern is actually Dick Liddil. Dick, played by Paul Schneider, murmurs at one point, “You can hide things in vocabulary.” He’s the smartest of Jesse’s gang. He’s the most confident. He wears the thickest mask. He not only thinks he’s God’s gift to earth, he exudes a confidence and swagger that backs it up. He’s the only character who doesn’t eventually succumb to reality and face the difference between his self-image and reality. Jesse James faces the reality of his self, and gives up murdering in the most punishing way possible. Dick Liddil doesn’t, and he pays a price too. He doesn’t control his fate, like Jesse does. Jesse chooses to die; Dick Liddil lets his confidence get the better of him. He reaches too far and ends up locked away.
Anyone in the movie who doesn’t look inwards and examine themselves truthfully dies. Jesse examines himself, and deems himself worthy of death. Robert Ford refuses to practice self-awareness and lives a miserable existence that ends with a death he can’t control. Sam Hite (Jeremy Renner) considers himself a tough, actualized man. Instead all his goals are foisted from him by the more actualized gang members. He dies by someone else’s hands too. Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt) is dumb as bricks. He deludes himself too, about lots of little things, like a whore loving him. He also loses control of his own fate and is killed by Jesse James. Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) presents himself exactly as he is; he’s devoid of lies. Jesse even comments on this:
You know I’m real comfortable with your brother. Hell, he’s ugly as sin and he smells like a skunk and he’s so ignorant he couldn’t drive nails in the snow, but he’s sort of easy to be around. I can’t say the same for you, Bob.
Charley gets to die by his own hands too. He looks inward and takes control of his own life in the most literal way. He looks inside himself and realizes he can’t live with Jesse’s blood on his hands. Everyone in this movie dies, but only those who understand themselves are allowed the dignity of choosing their death.
PART IV: VIOLENCE
Andrew Dominik depicts some of the least cinematic moments of violence I have ever scene. Clearly he abhors violence, and every time he portrays the act of murder or assault this becomes incredibly clear. In Chopper, the violence is surreal and upsetting. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the violence is depressing and anticlimactic. The gunplay in this movie doesn’t ever end with a bang, always a whimper.
Everyone who gets shot in this movie gets shot from behind. Jesse James is shot in the back of the head. Jesse James himself kills people by creeping around behind them and shooting them. When Bob Ford is warned about Jesse, he’s told, “Don’t let him get behind you.” Most everyone who gets shot in this movie is unarmed too. The violence is beyond their control. Jesse James, granted as part of his ritualistic suicide, strips himself of his guns before he’s shot. Ed Miller sits innocently on a horse while Jesse rides behind him. Sam Hite is shot in the back of the head by an unassuming Robert Ford.
In fact Sam Hite’s death deserves a special examination. Sam Hite comes storming into the bedroom that Robert, Charley, and Dick share. His aim is to shoot Dick. What follows is the closest this “western” ever comes to having a gunfight. Sam charges in shooting. Every single shot misses. Charley leaps out the window and across the roof in terror. Dick scrambles to return fire, falling to the floor. Robert sits clutching his gun petrified. Dick returns fire. Sam gets shot in the wrist and drops his gun. Except that Dick gets shot first, and can barely move. Dick is out of ammo and starts reloading. Sam picks his gun up off the floor with his other hand. Robert shoots him in the head. It’s all so pathetic.
PART V: THAT LOUSY NARRATOR
Now’s the part of this essay where I start pulling apart little facets of this movie. There are some serious shenanigans going on with this film’s omniscient narrator. Let’s examine some of his lines and passages, starting with his description of Jesse James:
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.
Well, that narration is lousy with unreliable comments. “He also had a condition that was referred to as ‘granulated eyelids’ and it caused him to blink more than usual.” Anyone watching this movie might catch the bullshit apparent in that comment, which only draws your attention to Jesse James’ generally unblinking eyes. Later on in the movie Robert Ford draws our attention to Jesse’s eyes again, reading a passage from a newspaper clipping that compares them to the eyes of a school girl. Watch the eyes. That seems to be the mention. Like Andrew Dominik is making sure you noticed this descriptive discrepancy.
“He considered himself a Southern loyalist and a guerrilla.” Well, sure, that’s an easy claim to make. Certainly a few of Jesse’s followers are Southern loyalists. Jesse himself shows absolutely no sign of believing those words. A governor even points out the lies in this claim later:
Jesse James is nothing more than a public outlaw who’s made his reputation by stealing whatever he could and by killing whoever got in his way. You’ll hear some fools say he’s getting back at Republicans and Union men for wrongs his family suffered during the war, but his victims have scarcely ever been selected with reference to their political views.
That’s not the end of the narrator’s lies though, not even close. Even in that opening speech he lies again. “He regretted neither his robberies, nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to.” Again, there’s a distinct sense that the film is drawing attention to this lie. Jesse James, as I’ve already demonstrated, very much regretted his actions. So much so that he lets Robert Ford kill him.
The Narrator clearly lies about Jesse James, but does he lie about Robert Ford?
The day before he died was Palm Sunday. And Mr. and Mrs. Howard, their two children and their cousin Charles Johnson strolled to the second Presbyterian Church to attend the 10:00 service. Bob remained at the cottage and slyly migrated from room to room. He walked into the Master bedroom and inventoried the clothes on the hangers and hooks. He sipped from the water glass on the vanity. He smelled the talcum and lilacs on Jesse’s pillowcase. His fingers skittered over his ribs to construe the scars where Jesse was twice shot. He manufactured a middle finger that was missing the top two knuckles. He imagined himself at 34. He imagined himself in a coffin. He considered possibilities and everything wonderful that could come true.
Before the movie proved the Narrator’s lies, whereas here it seems to prove his veracity. Each of these descriptors coincides with a shot proving them true. When he describes Robert Ford’s increasing suspicion of Jesse James it too seems to be accurate:
And so it went, Jesse was increasingly cavalier. Merry, moody, fey, unpredictable. He camouflaged his depressions and derangements with masquerades of extreme cordiality, courtesy, and goodwill towards others. But even as he jested or tickled his boy in the ribs, Jesse would look over at Bob with melancholy eyes as if the two were meshed in an intimate communication. Bob was certain that the man had unriddled him; had seen through his reasons for coming along; that Jesse could forecast each of Bob’s possible moves and inclinations and was only acting the innocent in order to lull Bob into a stupid tranquility and miscalculation.
We see the two lock eyes even as the narrator describes it. Again, it seems like an attempt at proving the narrator’s truth. The outro seems just as true as the rest of the Narrator’s descriptors of Bob:
He was ashamed of his persiflage, 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. Even as he circulated his saloon he knew that the smiles disappeared when he passed by. He received so many menacing letters that he could read them without any reaction except curiosity. He kept to his apartment all day, flipping over playing cards, looking at his destiny in every King and Jack. 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.
PART VI: MEMORY
This narrator makes a similar mistake to the minstrel that sings about Jesse James murder. That minstrel mentions Jesse’s three kids and a drunk Bob Ford corrects him.
However everyone remembers the details of Robert Ford’s life correctly.
Because Bob Ford doesn’t succeed in usurping Jesse James’ fame. Even by killing him, he elevates him. If Robert Ford is famous after killing the roguish criminal, then Jesse James is an icon. A legend. The narrator describes photos of his corpse sitting next to photos of the wonders of the world. “There would be no eulogies for Bob, no photographs of his body.”
PART VII: CONCLUSION
Robert Ford’s blind hunt for fame, without ever trying to look inwards and adjust himself, proves more than futile. In the world of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, self-awareness allows you to control your own fate, and so Ford’s ending falls from his control. Jesse dies by his own choice, and becomes an icon. Robert Ford dies by the hands of an assassin even more forgetful than he was. Jesse James keeps on warping reality around himself even after he dies.