By turns brutal and lyrical, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford considers Wild Western mythology and masculinity, violence and madness. Above all, it is a contemplation of celebrity as it continues to shape all aspects of American culture. Embodying his moment’s boundless desires and hard-up limits, Jesse James is here outlaw and rock star, murderer and mentor. He is also, according to this most fabulous mix of fiction, fact, and desire, the designer of his own demise.
Slowly paced and almost painfully detailed, Andrew Dominik’s film more than fulfills the promise of Chopper (2000), another study of the violence inherent in celebrity. Based on Ron Hansen’s 1997 novel, Assassination makes the case that Jesse’s stardom, even more than his actual crimes (numerous robberies as well as “17 murders he laid claim to”) or mounting paranoia, leads to his dreadful end. Throughout, Roger Deakins’ heartbreakingly beautiful cinematography, alternately blurred and precise, hints at his internal turmoil, his world cast in autumnal, “Christina’s World”-ish colors as well as shadows long and evocative.
Opening on the first encounter between Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his killer-to-be, Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), the movie traces the strange and fitful rhythms of their relationship, leading to and slightly beyond the titular event. At the time of this meeting, 34-year-old Jesse and his older brother James (Sam Shepard) are planning the gang’s final train robbery, at Blue Cut in September 1881. Bob, just 19, makes his way through the small parcel of woods where the gang is camped. While he’s tagged along with his brother Charlie (Sam Rockwell), it’s clear right away that Bob is too eager and weird. Put off by other members, including Dick (brilliant Paul Schneider) and the James’ cousin Wood (Jeremy Renner), he approaches Frank and then Jesse, asking whether he might be allowed to show “how special I am,” and so be anointed a “sidekick.”
Summarily dismissed by Frank (“You don’t have the ingredients, son”) and all but ignored by Jesse (who remains focused on his stew), Bob doesn’t understand that his very inexperience is a sign of the gang’s demise. As the film’s narrator (Hugh Ross) puts it, Bob and his brother are replacing original members now dead or in prison, as the Jameses have assembled a few “petty thieves and local rubes culled from the hills.” Still believing in the sensational James Gang dime novels he’s read since his childhood, Bob observes the Blue Cut execution with awe and admiration. While the film emphasizes Jesse’s seeming irrationality — his threat to execute a postal clerk draws remonstration from fellow robbers — Bob is seduced by the evening’s splendor: shafts of filtered moonlight, silhouetted figures, thieves in hiding their faces under hoods.
Though he wears a cursory kerchief, Jesse does not hide his features. His storied appearance (“face as smooth and innocent as a schoolgirl’s”) being crucial to his menace, Jesse is revealed for his victims, who quake appropriately even as they might consider resisting his demands. After Blue Cut, when Frank and Jesse part ways, Bob offers himself up as servant, performing menial labor and eventually insinuating himself into Jesse’s story until he appears undeniable, even inevitable.
CASEY AFFLECK as Robert Ford and BRAD PITT as Jesse
That’s not to say their relationship is stable. After a few days of Bob watching his every move (including the exact manner in which he bathes, gun beside him and ever ready), Jesse rejects the youngster. “I can’t figure it out,” Jesse says, his back to Bob who waits in a doorway. “You want to be like me or be me?” Their separation means the film cuts between them for a spell, each man pursuing a path that will eventually lead him back to the other. Jesse finds it difficult to give up “night-riding,” and becomes increasingly paranoid. Under the pseudonym “Thomas Howard,” he moves his children and wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) to a cottage in St. Joseph, Missouri. But he’s unable to resists his own restlessness, and so rides out occasionally to locate and murder former gang members.
These visits are framed as eerie, sporadically savage vignettes. Questioning a boy as to his uncle’s whereabouts, Jesse is suddenly possessed of an unnerving fury, pounding the youngster’s face while Dick protests in the background (“He’s just a kid!”), finally pulling Jesse off. Even as Jesse looks demented, his victim retains a defiant, if ill-advised, dignity, rebuking his attacker, “You bastard!”
At this moment, Assassination doesn’t exactly ask you to see Jesse as Dick does (for Dick is a self-absorbed dervish of sexual appetite and recklessness), but it does make Jesse look more scary than charming. Similarly, his visit to the ailing and cadaverous former gang member Ed (Garret Dillahunt) makes Jesse look unreasonable, for all his apparent coolness. Tapping his hat with his finger, Jesse says he’s not heard the “gossip” that would implicate Ed or others in assorted conspiracies to kill Jesse (and collect a hefty reward), but Ed’s bluish countenance tells you all you need to know. Jesse is implacable, his decisions unchangeable. When Jesse suggests they “go for a ride,” Ed is dead — even if he’s still breathing.
At last landing on Bob and Charlie’s doorstep, Jesse is still looking for offenders, but he’s unhappy and erratic. On hearing Bob list “the many ways that you and I overlap and whatnot” (the share the same height, blue eyes, number of brothers, etc.), Jesse looks almost resigned. Bob’s obsession is never explosive, but it is wearing. While Charlie does his best to cajole Jesse into better spirits, his decision that he and the Ford brothers should take up one last job is plainly a means to the end. When the threesome settles into a small house among long golden grasses to plan the robbery, the movie’s melancholy becomes almost overwhelming. Jesses suspects every conversation Bob and Charlie have without him, they fear his every step.
When Jesse apologizes for “feeling ornery” and alarming the Fords, Bob is partly in love again, partly determined to fulfill what he sees as his own destiny, to “show how special he is.” When, one sunny morning, Jesse essentially offers his back as a target, Bob aims and fires the new nickel-plated gun given to him by Jesse James.
The film loses its pulsing energy once Jesse is dead, and this is the point. For now Bob is launched into the pain of repetition and expectation that afflicted his idol, the part of Jesse’s celebrity that Bob couldn’t see. Bob and Charlie take a show on the road, performing the assassination on stage (by Bob’s count, says the narrator, “over 800 times”). If ever we imagine that O.J. and Britney have inaugurated a new or even extreme mode of celebrity, we need only consider Bob’s bizarre post-Jesse life. Like Eminem’s Stan or Selena’s Yolanda Saldivar, he is forever linked to his object of worship. Though Bob yearns for the adulation he felt for his victim, instead, he is mocked and resented. And Jesse’s postmortem photo — his corpse tied to a slab, surrounded by men in suits standing stiffly — sells thousands of copies.