Cult Classics: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
By James Wynne
Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Ron Hansen’s couth biographical of Jesse James’ final years is unconsidered by most people, and was undeservedly censured by various critics for being “ponderous” and “pretentious” (i.e. it dared to buck the conventions of the modern film industry by taking its time to tell the story at hand, and being of so sophisticated a calibre as to deter the majority of the viewing public who crave incessantly high-octane action scenes and other likewise superficialities). But with the lyrical, sesquipedalian narration of Hugh Ross, the tragic melodics of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, two inhabiting performances from Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, and the quaint austerity of its western setting galvanised by the picturesque cinematography of Roger Deakins — The Assassination of Jesse James is a beautiful and comprehensive exemplar of film as art.
Hansen’s novel — and therefore, the film itself — addresses the events that follow the dissolution of the infamous “James Gang”, as Jesse and Frank (Sam Shepard) endeavour upon one last train heist at Blue Cut, assembling a group of wannabe outlaws culled from the local countrysides. Their criminal congregation consists of Robert Ford (Affleck), Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), and Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), all of whom, barring Dick, perish throughout the course of the film, as events aboard the train breed some dire consequences for a number of the felonious participants, and the Fords become ensnared in a game of cat and mouse with a fatefully distrustful and increasingly unstable Jesse.
The vicissitude of Rob’s exalted estimation of Jesse is what breeds his desire to precipitate the outlaw’s downfall. His growing jealousy of the veneration held for Jesse amongst his peers, coupled with Jesse’s almost mythic standing in the hearts and minds of the American populace, as well as his crescive antipathy for Jesse’s affectations of geniality and approbation for Bob himself, enshrouding a calloused, churlish mentality, collectively extirpates Rob’s idolisation.
Affleck appropriately suffuses the transformation of Bob’s regard for Jesse, as the naïve adoration is transposed with a scornful jealousy the more exposed Bob is to the unfeigned, thoroughly unheroic face of Jesse James. Bob’s desire to be *like* Jesse burgeons into an exigency to *be* Jesse, in all his eminence. It’s an unfulfillable wish that drives his aspiration to instead enact his own cultural significance as the man who shot Jesse James. The tragedy is that Bob achieves the renowned parity he sets out to, but for all Jesse’s heinous crimes, *his* passing is heralded akin to that of a hero’s, whilst Bob accrues only infamy for himself, unknowingly spurring events that would later lead to his own demise at the hands of Edward O’Kelley, with all of its saddening parallelisms to his own assassination of Jesse James.
Hansen’s protracted title even alludes to the common perception of Bob’s actions, whilst the content of both the novel and the film themselves paint a wholly disparate picture. Bob’s motivations weren’t the most honourable, but he was merely a young lad who had been spurned by his hero, learning of Jesse’s grievously distasteful nature the hard way, and becoming increasingly resentful of the public acclaim he had unrighteously garnered — acclaim that Bob had once sought to recreate for himself in Jesse’s image. His original intention had been to simply aid in Jesse’s detainment, but Jesse’s characteristically formidable ability to preempt any manoeuvres being made to thwart him left Bob no choice but to kill him; he was impelled by a desperate fear for his and his brother’s lives, as Jesse taunted them both with a suggestive knowledge of what they intended to do.
The Assassination of Jesse James is a consummate account of events, that’s bolstered by excellence in every possible area. The vistas of 19th Century America are captured with sublimity by Dominik’s direction, and enriched by the vividity of Deakins’ cinematography. The melancholic score of Cave and Ellis intensifies the tragedy of Jesse and Bob’s stories tenfold. And the actors themselves — this is not limited to just Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt, either — so extensively assume the identities of those they’re portraying that any elements of imitation are completely imperceptible.