The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Andrew Dominik
viewed: 10/30/07 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

Panned pretty hard by numerous critics for being long and slow, Andrew Dominik’s film whose title kind of says it all in terms of its basic narrative, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, still attracted me.  Particularly after reading the review in the San Francisco Chronicle in which critic Peter Hartlaub threw out that “fans of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995)” would like this film where 10 to 1 other filmgoers would hate it, I felt titilated only because I guess that I fell into that 10% fraction.  It’s not that I like slow movies or ponderous ones, but quite recently I felt pretty aggrevated that I missed seeing David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) for fear of sitting through some long slog in the theater for a film that had received decidedly mixed reviews.  It’s the Western aspect too that attracted me, this dying genre.

In preparation, I’d quite recently seen Dominik’s earlier film, Chopper (2001), which was actually also quite interestingly a fictionalized recap of the career of a noted criminal who was, similarly to Jesse James, also a mythologized, mythologizing figure in the media.  Dominik seems particularly interested in this theme.  The Assassination of Jesse James is also deeply about the mythologizing of individuals, both criminals and would-be heroes (as in the case of the Jesse James wannabe of Robert Ford).  This common element is in no ways accidental.  In fact, it is by many means the primary aspect of the narrative.

The film is based on a novel (that I haven’t read) by Robert Benson, and follows an oft-told tale of the title’s description, scripted many times in magazines, books, films, and literature, and this very fact, its oft-toldness is what Dominik is interested in.  He doesn’t seek “the truth” per se, meaning the most valid knowledge that can be extracted from historical elements, but rather is satisfied with yet another “mythologizing” piece.  I say this because both Chopper and this film are not meant to be some definitive word on the subject matter.  Chopper even states quite clearly that it is a fictionalized telling of things, as this film is based on a novel, not a non-fictional recount, one could glean similar approaches.  Again, one that is clearly deliniating itself from non-fiction or documentation with some objectivity implied.

The Assassination of Jesse James follows the character of Robert Ford, James’ eventual killer, from his introduction to James and his gang by way of their final train robbery, an eager though not well-liked and begrudgingingly accepted member of the gang for this one adventure.  Ford had been since childhood, obsessed with the image and stories of Jesse James as reported and aggrandized by the media of the time, magazines and books that created the living legend in his own time and existence.  So Ford’s dream come true is lived out on the night after the robbery, hanging out with his idol, living his childhood fantasy.

Ford is in no ways disappointed with the reality of the myth.  He utterly idealizes and idolizes James, but Ford’s general demeanor, a tone of childish pretense barely covering his broad and deep insecurities and snippiness, makes him an ill-liked figure in anyone’s company, and he becomes an object of teasing and derision (one that as the youngest of three brothers and at least one sister he has experienced all his life) and is ultimately tossed aside.

James, well-cast in Brad Pitt, suggests the easy coolness that has made him a site of mythologizing, one who has long lived his own legend and enjoyed it, but who also, at the age of 34 is world-weary and growingly paranoid, and unsure of how to transition into any other life.  Aware of his myth, but not in control of it, one might say.

As the narrative follows out, in its slow pace (it’s true), the film maintains a slow-burning intensity that really stems from the handling of the characters, developing a growing, almost sickening dread of what is yet to come.  Casey Affleck is excellent as Robert Ford, and the cast in general are quite good.  James’ charm and aspects of goodness are not eclipsed but highly mitigated by his own violence and propensity for ruthlessness and brutality, from beating an innocent child to nearly killing an innocent and honest train clerk.  Dominik portrays his moral duality and yet his qualities as a family man in such a way that his impending death is a heavy and hard thing to wait for.

For Ford, who is driven to this role of assassin by opportunisism and revenge for being slighted and ridiculed, this murder is heinous, killing a friend with a gun that James had given him in James’ own house with his family merely rooms away with James’ back to him in a clearly unprotected stance.  James has a sense of his impending doom and seems to allow the situation to present itself intentionally, but Ford takes the shot and quickly skedaddles down to the telegraph office, already bragging about his deed.

The film follows Ford’s life after this incident, a self-mythologizer extroirdinaire, replaying the event on stage hundreds of times, making a name for himself as a hero and a bringer of justice.  But Ford’s attempts at legend-making backfire ultimately after a few years, as the legend of Jesse James continues to grow in contrast to Ford’s largely cowardly act, and ultimately makes him a pariah.  His own legend, his own myth can be found in this film’s title.

The film ultimately allows for Ford to find some redemption, in acceptance of his act and a maturity that he reaches in understanding his cowardliness and exploitation of his own one time idol beyond idolatry and into his true relationship and friendship with James.  And the poetic justice, the assassination of Robert Ford, by some would-be loser also trying to make a name for himself, offers some true sense of epiphany and almost redemption for Ford in the very end.

I don’t know that I can glean ultimately what Dominik is stating in these films definitively, but rather that it is a fascinating notion, not simply the public’s fascination and idolatry of popular criminals who evolve into legends, but also their own place in that story-telling, in adding to the myth, living the myth, co-scribing the myth both in their actions and in their self-promotion (even in simply story-telling).  It’s a very interesting thing, and truly what I have taken away from this film, which I found to be very compelling, though not really in the same way that Terrence Malick or Jim Jarmusch’s films struck me.

I’m actually quite fired up to watch a short list of other films about the same story, some of which I have seen before, but each of which comes from a different decade in the 20th century and are directed by notable directors.  So, soon, you should see these films showing up here: Henry King’s Jesse James (1939), Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949), Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James (1957), and Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980).  The legend of Jesse James truly is one of the largest myths and realities of the American West.  Dominik’s film, among many of its qualities, is a fascinating meditation on the story and the ways in which that story have become the legend that it has.