Retrospective Film Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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‘Don’t that picture look dusty?’

(The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Dir. Andrew Dominik – 2007 – United States – 160 mins)

One day, in the far and distant future, cultural historians may well use the Western genre as a means of charting American self-identity. Whereas Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s emphasised American values of honour, industriousness and bravery in the self-congratulatory post-World War II and early Cold War climate, in the last couple of decades, and especially in the 21st century, the Western has provided writers and directors a means to challenge the validity of such values, and ask a question that has plagued America in the settling dust of a world young again: just who are we?

2007 was the year of the Western, with James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood winning critical and commercial acclaim for depicting the harsh realities of America’s pioneering development. But it is to their quieter, more introspective counterpart that this review is devoted. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a film about the power of myth and the fate of those who seek to cross the divide between reality and legend, but merely fall through the cracks.

Brad Pitt is Jesse James, the legendary outlaw who, as the film begins, is at the tail-end of his career. The stories of his daring that race back and forth across the country have far outstripped the reality of the man; James has become paranoid, isolated and randomly violent, fearful of the authorities out to capture him and friends tempted to turn him in for a reward. ‘Don’t that picture look dusty?’ he comments knowingly towards the film’s end. As his gang gears up for one last train robbery, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a 19 year old wannabe outlaw obsessed with the Jesse James legend, succeeds in courting James’s interest and joining his entourage. Following the robbery, the gang goes their separate ways, but Ford and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) find themselves entangled with James again when a dispute between James’s cousin and a friend of theirs leads to Ford killing the cousin. James’s reappearance, and suspicion of the Ford brothers, along with his growing general paranoia and aggressiveness, ratchets up the tension greatly and leads the Ford brothers to fear for their own safety. This fear, along with disillusionment over the reality of James compared to the legend, and anger over James’s constant taunting and bullying, leads to the conclusion set up by the film’s title.

The dramatic tension of the film then lies not in what happens, but rather in how it happens. The film’s title is deliberately ironic, appropriating the established view of the story of James and Ford that grew in the aftermath of the murder, whilst actually subverting it. The legend of Jesse James as a daring leader of men who gave his earnings to the poor is torn down; in this film James gives no money away, and his success in evading justice is down to his cunning and violence more than anything else. At one point, suspecting an old friend of plotting to kill him, he invites him out on a night-time horse ride, during which he shoots his friend in the back and speeds away. At another, he boasts of killing an enemy in a devious ambush.

Meanwhile, Robert Ford is shown to be an identifiable everyman figure, certainly no hero, but a man whose only crime was pledging allegiance to a false mythology, and being unable to cope with the ensuing disillusionment. Like contemporary viewers, he stands at a point in history where technological advances and the end of the Frontier race create a divide between the myths and realities of American culture. Both he and James fall victim to this; James carries the burden of a reputation he can’t live up to, while Ford carries one that he can’t live down. In an early scene, Ford reads out an article written about James, describing his ‘light-hearted’ nature, while James squirms uncomfortably. In a later scene, a travelling musician (Nick Cave) regales a bar with ‘The Ballad of Jesse James’ while Ford drinks unnoticed, until he feels compelled to correct a detail of the song – James had two children, not three – prompting only scorn and rejection from the other customers. In the end, the final irony of the film is that while Ford assassinates James’s body, the last laugh is on him, as James succeeds in assassinating his character.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a wonderfully rich epic of a Western. It wears its roots as an adaptation of Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel firmly on its sleeve – it is an extremely literary film that substitutes character study for action and makes use of the Midwestern American landscape, a bleak and consistent colour palate and colour diffraction reminiscent of early photographs to evoke a highly potent response in the viewer and draw them into the story. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, it is probably a tad longer than it needs to be, but this is mere nitpicking – the precise, studied characterisation of the film more than justifies its length. Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck deliver career-best performances; Pitt oozes charm and menace in equal measure, and when he puts his cohorts on edge, particularly in his final scene, you can cut the tension with a knife. His lack of even a nomination at the Academy Awards is downright unforgiveable. Affleck, worthily nominated, is superb; every squirm and tick of the sycophantic yet idealistic Ford is nailed down perfectly. The two leads, along with a flawless cast, bring home a magnificent film that relishes in its literary nature. Sadly lacking in the widespread recognition it deserves, this is definitely a film for lovers of intelligent cinema to discover, one whose haunting visuals and dialogue will rest in the viewer’s mind for a long time to come.

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