BEYOND THE MYTH LIES AMERICA'S GREATEST BETRAYAL
They say you should never meet your heroes, because they can only disappoint you. Perhaps they won’t be how you thought they would be, too mean or cold; perhaps your own excitement over meeting them will get the better of you, and you’ll make a fool of yourself; or perhaps it simply won’t amount to the fantasy in your head, where they instantly recognise the deep spiritual connection between the two of you that you know is there. Indeed, many people set out to bring down those held in high esteem by others, saying that no one really needs a hero or an idol; whilst others will do anything to maintain their perception of their idols, regardless of how destructive. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford looks at a point in history when a young man began as one and ended as another, murdering his hero for the sake of his own personal glory.
All his life, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) idolised Jesse James (Brad Pitt), reading of his exploits and wanting to be just like him. However, when he and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) become part of the James gang for their last robbery, Robert starts to hate and fear his hero. Ford so desperately wants attention and glory that he decides to kill Jesse in his own home. Ford does become famous, but as a famous coward and betrayer.
I mentioned back when I talked about Amélie that the first time I saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I wasn’t entirely sure of what to make of it. Certainly, I could appreciate the incredible artistry and effort of the individual elements of the piece, but I wasn’t sure if it had really got to me any deeper than that. That sense of being unsure about it stayed with me until I realised that, after three days, I was still thinking about the film. Only I wasn’t thinking about whether or not I liked it. I was thinking about the power of the performances, the sublime music, the gorgeous cinematography, the scale of the vision, the depth and profundity of the story being told. Not only did I go on to conclude that I loved the film, but that I believed it was the best film of 2007 and one of my favourite films ever.
The film is adapted from the book by Ron Hansen, published in 1983, which presented a highly-detailed, though fictitious account of the meeting of Robert Ford and the notorious outlaw Jesse James and how their relationship grew and twisted into something that, in the eyes of history, turned James into a legend and Ford into a coward. The emphasis of the narrative was placed on a psychoanalytical consideration of their respective motives, their background and their personalities and how this eventually amounted to one of the most famous acts of betrayal in history. The script was written by Andrew Dominik, who also directed the film, making as much a mockery of the ‘difficult second film’ idea as Tarantino did with Pulp Fiction. Dominik maintains the slow pace of the book, almost like the whole story is one long funeral procession for a death that hasn’t yet happened but is as inevitable as night following day. The pacing and length (160 minutes long) will be a problem for some, and actually brought it close to being seriously re-edited by the studio, who didn’t care for the slowness and lack of action. Fortunately, Dominik won and his edit held out, although it was greatly reduced from the 240 minute long cut that premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and received widespread praise. Honestly, I’d happily sit through that cut, but I know that’s not for everyone.
Obviously, the most important part of this film, the thing that the whole thing pivots on, is the characters and their relationship with one another. If they lacked the complexity that was required, then it would be impossible to take the complicated nature of their interactions seriously and the whole film would be for nought. In fact, they’re as much at war with themselves as with each other. There’s Jesse James, the famous outlaw and former Confederate guerrilla fighter whose national reputation was akin to that of Robin Hood. His exploits were told and retold, through word of mouth and the dime store books that many, including Robert Ford, read about obsessively. Jesse is more than aware of his image in the public consciousness, and feels a strain within him as trying to maintain that image. Yes, Jesse James is loved by most of America, and some beyond. However, he is a much darker individual, and not just because he is an unrepentant thief and murderer with no real claim to being anything like Robin Hood. Jesse is also a sadist and a bully, getting some enjoyment (and anguish) out of torturing those around him either physically or mentally. He has also grown increasingly more paranoid after years of being hunted by lawmen, to the point where begins to track down and murder his own gang members because he believes they will soon turn on him. Even then, there’s evidence of a conflict within him, a desire for a quiet life with his family, who remain the only ones of whom he is so fiercely protective. James is played by Brad Pitt, who gives a superb performance as this complex individual. Because Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt, he does have a distinctly magnetic quality to him. He can make even the most ridiculous and awkward things seem cool, as evidenced by his other great performance as Tyler Durden in Fight Club. This magnetism and charisma is exactly the kind of thing that rests at the heart of Jesse James. Most people like him on sight, because he is so handsome and cool. However, it’s when you get close to him that you see that he can be equally repellent. Most people have, at one time or another, had what they would call a “mean friend”. Someone who is mean, nasty, even cruel, but is such a force of personality that people can’t help but be drawn to them. This is Jesse James all over. His presence, his deeds, his manner, his look, everything seemingly geared towards being attractive and repellent with equal power.
Then there’s Robert Ford, a young man completely enamoured with the James gang, and Jesse in particular. Clearly, Ford was always a target for people stronger than him. The youngest of all his brothers and socially awkward, even though he likely tried to stand up for himself, his nerve was never as strong as theirs, and he remained the weak one by everyone else’s estimation. So apparently powerless is he that he looks elsewhere for some kind of escapism and inspiration. Naturally, he would come to idolise the man who became famous for bravery, cunning and strength – Jesse James. Obsessed with the man, reading all about his exploits and becoming an authority on the James gang, he found a great deal of pride in the many ways he and Jesse overlap, both in family and physical characteristics. Through these musings, and his own deep-seated need for people to respect and admire him, Ford comes to believe that he is destined for great things, and that it is intrinsically linked to Jesse James. When he finally does come to meet him, his obvious worship is constantly undermined by Jesse’s bullying nature, so he gradually comes to resent the man in whom he had placed so much personal stock. Even though he still finds himself drawn to the man, partly because of Jesse’s occasional acts of half-hearted kindness towards him, he still finds himself scared by him, and filled with a bitter anger and disdain. These feelings become so strong that he decides the best way to rid himself of his pain and the constant torture of Jesse’s presence, as well as gaining his much sought after glory, is to kill him. Casey Affleck plays Robert Ford, and is outstanding in the role. Affleck looks like someone who has never been entirely taken as seriously as he would like, no doubt in part because his older brother, Ben, is much more successful in almost every measure. However, Casey shows every twist, every ache, every humiliation, every resentment, everything that makes Robert Ford the bitterly tragic figure he is. You feel so damn sorry for him, even though it becomes clear that his journey will turn him into a murderer and a social pariah that even he had never thought possible. Make no mistake, in this film, in this role, Casey Affleck is unbeatable.
The relationship between James and Ford is so wonderfully played out, too. Despite the reality that Jesse James was a mass murderer and thief, and that Robert Ford killed him after apparently getting the okay from the police, the title of the film is the indication as to how the public received the news of the killing: James was immortalised; Ford was vilified. After so many years of wanting to be like James, or even be him completely, Ford comes to a sort of conclusion that the way you become a legend is to kill one. However, this misunderstanding of how these things work becomes his downfall. If it were, the man who killed Robert Ford would be a legend himself, but he is nothing more than a footnote in the history pages. It’s Jesse who understands the real meaning of legacy. As he mentions in a conversation with Robert’s brother Charley, suicide is something that has occurred to him more than once. However, this could diminish his stature in the eyes of the public, and he would hate to have gone through all this for nothing. Jesse knows that he must be killed by someone else in order to live on forever, and finds his perfect patsy in Robert Ford, the pitiful young man who worships the enigmatic outlaw. Much of what occurs between the two is a calculated play by James to subtly force Robert’s hand towards a gun. So literal is this that he actually presents Robert with a new gun, offering it as an apology for his abrupt and terse behaviour. Whether or not Robert really understands the significance of the gesture is slightly ambiguous, but Jesse is very clear-headed in his intentions: if he’s going to be killed, it’s going to be with a new gun, clean and shining with “extravagance”. Indeed, it can be very much said that Jesse James and Robert Ford effectively assassinate each other – one by bullet; one by character.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is far from just a two-man show. The rest of cast is rounded out by fine actors, all giving damn good performances. Sam Rockwell’s Charley is someone who seems to feel some remorse for his brother’s social standing, and tries to bring him closer to his hero and the acceptance he so craves. However, since Jesse James is the last person Robert Ford should have been exposed to, Charley becomes wracked with guilt, and more subject to the superstitions that already guide him. Jeremy Renner plays Wood Hite, Jesse’s cousin, a mean-spirited swine who uses Jesse’s notoriety as a means to intimidate others, much like the inevitable lackey to the school bully. Paul Schneider is Dick Liddil, a promiscuous man, possessed of education and charm, but who has become incredibly arrogant by being the intelligent one amongst those that can’t even read. Garret Dillahunt is Ed Miller, a none-too-bright member of the James gang that Jesse easily tricks into giving away too much about plans to turn him in for a reward, setting Jesse on a path to remove the threat. There’s also smaller roles ably held by Ted Levine, Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel.
The rest of the film is marked with some incredible work. Roger Deakins, who may, at the time of writing, be the best cinematographer alive, does amazing work in this film. Just watch the beautifully haunting train robbery sequence at the beginning. It’s downright ethereal. There is not a single shot in this film that you couldn’t hang on your wall, the work is so utterly striking and gorgeous. And the music, from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, matches the visuals perfectly. It captures the sombre beauty, the eerie tone, and heightening this overall feel of an extended and unsettlingly tragic funeral in the making.
Whilst it requires some patience and attention from the viewer, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford rewards those that give it greatly. It’s moody, it’s tragic, it’s elegiac. The script is wonderfully layered, the performances are perfect, the direction is downright masterful, and it is stunning to look at. I’m really not kidding when I say that this is one of my favourite films. You may not share that sentiment, but I sincerely ask you give it a try.