Andrew Dominik’s second feature film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an unmitigated masterpiece. After testing out his prowess on the fleet, trim Chopper Dominik went for a stately sprawl for his followup and pulled it off with remarkable precision. A slow, meditative western with a commercially unwieldly title (Brad Pitt reportedly made it part of his deal that the studio wasn’t allowed to abbreviate it) – the film was facing an uphill commercial battle from the beginning, despite the starpower of its lead. Not knowing how to market such a thing, Warner Bros. released Jesse James into a scant 301 theaters in the fall of 2007 to the tune of a $3.9 million domestic gross.
Yet, the film lives on in something of an ongoing revival and continues to find an audience through positive word of mouth. Speaking of platitudes, at this point you’ve heard just about everything there is to hear about the film in terms of accolades. Casey Affleck is astounding as Robert Ford. The cinematography is some of Roger Deakins’ best work (no small feat). The supporting cast (featuring Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garett Dillahunt and Paul Schneider) fully inhabit each of their characters like a second skin. Dominik was revealed, at this moment, to be a true master of his craft. So I’m not going to spend this piece re-stating these well-trod points, however true they may be.
What I do want to talk about is the meaning of the film and why it resonates with me. A lot of people read Jesse James as sort of a meditation on the nature of celebrity, an acknowledgment that the symbiotic alchemy of the current parasite/host dynamic as embodied by TMZ culture has always been around. They’re not wrong. That’s very much in the film’s DNA. The narration of Hugh Ross points this out beautifully. The opening builds up Jesse’s legend (and takes great measures to show the dichotomy between legend and reality by including a shot of Pitt not blinking at all during a passage about how James was rumored to constantly blink), and the closing remarks contrast the popularity of James’ post-mortem photo and the anonymity that Ford fell into. But, if that were all this movie had to offer, I doubt it would resonate as strongly as it does. I know for certain that I wouldn’t find it as endlessly compelling as I do (the final 20 minute stretch of the movie routinely makes me emotional) if that were the entirety of the subtext.
Jesse James is about the intent behind our actions, how staying true to one’s self determines how the world views you. Sometimes it’s not what you do, but why you do it. Affleck’s Robert Ford embodies the kind of unattractive and desperate neediness that usually manifests itself through interpersonal overreach. You know the feeling you get when someone you’ve just met is being too nice to you? When they need your approval just a bit too much? It’s unsettling. Pitt’s Jesse James may be a murderer, but he doesn’t need your approval. Ford does. It’s that simple. As a result the murderer becomes magnetic and the people-pleaser becomes repellent.
Ford rubs everyone in the gang the wrong way because of this. He has no sense of self other than what he projects onto James. And it’s only when James calls him on this need that he engages with the surreptitious plan to place himself in the (now dwindling) inner circle once again and bring the notorious villain to justice. And that’s when he’s finally accepted, because the onus of approval is no longer Jesse James himself, but Governor Crittenden (with whom this plan was forged). Ford becomes desirable to James because his need to please him has been diminished, and as a result the young traitor almost immediately achieves the kind of connection he once longed for.
The telling line of the film comes near the end when a wiser Ford discusses killing James (years after the fact) with Zooey Deschanel’s Dorothy Evans. “You know what I expected? Applause,” he says. “They didn’t applaud.” This is the line that, to me, sums up the bulk of the film’s thematic thrust. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is about being the type of person you want to be rather than wishing yourself to be someone else. Robert Ford has no real sense of self until the very end of the film when he’s finally old enough to be accountable for his actions.
This is evident even in the very beginning of the piece, when Ford’s designs aren’t on Jesse but his older brother Frank James (Sam Shepard). The elder James is immediately suspicious of Ford’s desperation and tells him in no uncertain terms to stay away. Ford immediately recalibrates and seeks out Jesse as his new object of desire. To this end, it’s partially Jesse’s “gregarious” nature that allows Ford to project onto him for such a significant amount of time. This pattern re-emerges later on, when Ford imagines himself to be a “gentleman helper” to James’ wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) only to find his (platonic) advances spurned at every possible opportunity.
Granted, the material here is complex. But that’s what makes this picture so thoroughly rewatchable. It might have been an easier commercial consideration to make this point in a film where the sought-after character paradigm wasn’t also housed within a paranoid sociopath like Jesse James, but this only strengthens the point. To me, this is Dominik’s real stamp upon the film, or at least his most unsung one. On paper he did everything a good director should do by assembling a fantastic cast, getting a big movie star and hiring Roger Deakins as DP. But he’s not just a good director (and writer – having distilled Ron Hansen‘s novel into script form himself), he’s a great one and that’s evident in how he funnels an epic, meditative 160 minute western into one central theme. The world gravitates towards people who are comfortable in their own skin and rejects those that aren’t. Without exception. Just ask the coward Robert Ford.
Next: Killing Them Softly
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