The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby
In 1881, Jesse James was in the twilight of his career as one of the most famous men in America, mythologized in his own lifetime as a model of the heroic bandit. Stories of his adventures were told and retold across newspapers, pulp novels and ballads. After his death, photographs of his corpse packed in ice were available in corner stores everywhere. Many actors would play him in many films over the years, and later he would come to be idolised by the likes of John Dillinger, another criminal who developed a popular reputation the likes of which is all but unthinkable today. By October 1883, the man who murdered him—Robert Ford— could be identified by more citizens than could the President of the United States.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is as much about the incalculable weight of this mythology as it is the titular deed. The act which made Ford famous rings through the violence of so many other lonely, troubled young men hopelessly misled by the pre-packaged dreams of the new century. It’s about the failure of fiction to console, to ever adequately prepare us for the harsh complexities and contradictions of the real world.

The film is a slow, thoughtful piece, a Western that’s also about Westerns. Any film about Jesse James’ retirement is bound to be something of a winding-down, and as such this is a genre piece which features a single robbery and only one real gun fight. The latter is so short and absurd it could be hilarious if it weren’t so weirdly plausible—it, like most of the violence, is blunt, intimate, ugly, always at stark odds with the rest of the imagery. Regular Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins has made perhaps his most beautiful film here, reminiscent in many ways of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and the films of Terence Malick, and emulating from time to time the photography of the late nineteenth-century with a languorous, over-exposed look, a subtle blurring around the edges of the shot.

The style is elegant, natural and nostalgia-free, though the attention paid to domestic details is more reminiscent of a period drama. Look at the steam from the bathwater, those winding horse-trails across immense, snowy hillsides, the cast-iron stoves and the condensation on the inside of the windows of the warm cabin, the plates of stew and biscuits. Late in the film, Robert wanders around Jesse’s empty home touching his things, tasting his water, lying on his bed – exactly as we want to do in this most tactile film. Space, depth and light are almost palpable. You could take virtually any frame from this and hang it on your wall.

Much of this attention to detail is also present in Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name, which was Andrew Dominik’s original source for this movie. Having since read the book, the movie now seems to me like not only a faithful adaptation but an incredibly careful one. Much of the voiceover narration is sourced directly from Hansen’s writing (‘…Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rain fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified…’) and where the two differ, it’s easy to see why those creative choices were made. At heart, the film never departs from the novel’s core depiction of the relationship between James and Ford as one characterized by a kind of fascinated incomprehension.

Coming to the novel as I did, after the movie, it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Casey Affleck in the role of Robert Ford; with his high, wavering tone, his graceless words often verging on the indecipherable, Affleck captures perfectly the most irritating adolescent tics familiar to us from youth. Even when he’s only being a jerk to get back at his brothers, we feel sorry for him because Robert is always hopelessly sincere — and never more so than when he’s lying through his teeth. Unlike the rest of the gang he’s incapable of being a ‘yes-man’, something which Jesse notes and appreciates. Robert seems humourless, but that’s only because he’s always the butt of the jokes.

His laughter lives in a world of its own, always set at an angle against the reality that’s mistreated him. We’ve all suffered the humiliations of being left out and found out, of having our secret shoebox-worlds split open and scattered across the floor. We recognize the most delicate parts of him in ourselves, and this in turn makes it all the more difficult to see his crimes for what they are. In all his messy humanity, Robert Ford is everything the mythology wants the assassin of Jesse James not to be.

Compared to those around him, Ford often seems quite sane. It’s worth noting that virtually all the central characters in the film would probably be diagnosed with all kinds of psychological problems or personality disorders by modern standards. It’s not just Bob and Jesse who seem troubled; the James gang are violent, unpredictable, sleazy, double-crossing womanizers. Even Robert’s sensible brother Charley, played brilliantly by Sam Rockwell, eventually succumbs to insanity. Only Frank James seem to remain level-headed, and yet the voice of Ford’s heckler near the end of the movie is (I think) his — though whether or not it’s only heard in Robert’s head is another matter. Frank is the film’s original father figure, the one who confirmed what Robert had feared his whole life: that he just didn’t have the ingredients.

Brad Pitt has always seemed to revel in his own mythos, having spent most of his career playing versions of ‘Brad Pitt’. His Jesse is in fact an interesting inversion (or subversion?) of his role in Fight Club, another movie where the big famous handsome star was playing a big famous handsome star, running wild in our minds as well as Edward Norton’s. But Jesse James was the original Tyler Durden, the role model and psychological Id for fawning dreamers everywhere, and as in Fight Club, his death is also an act of self-destruction on the part of the dreamer – once it’s done, his body can’t simply be dumped in a creek and forgotten about.

Paranoia is all-pervasive in this film. But just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, and that particular form of mental illness is depicted as having a close relationship to intuition, something which all the characters have in varying degrees. Ed, Dick Liddil and Wood have next to none. Charley Ford has a little more, but not enough to see anything remarkable in Robert. Frank, Zee and her children have more still – they find Bob unsettling, but they can’t say why. But it’s Jesse who possesses almost supernatural powers; swathed in dark furs, he cuts a menacing, shamanic figure, melting in and out of the darkness. He claims to take trips outside his body, and possesses a natural affinity with the earth, a grounded wisdom that makes up for his limited worldly intelligence. ‘I’m not sure I even know what stars are,’ mutters Ed, as they ride together in the dark towards his end.‘Sure you do,’ Jesse says. ‘Your mind forgot, but your body remembers.’

It’s a film about homosocial relations — which is a pretty way of saying it’s a very manly film. Women are relegated to the sidelines, propping up the main plot without ever quite participating in it. There’s Martha Bolton, the sister of the Ford brothers; Jesse’s wife, Zee; Sarah Hite (the wayward spouse of Wood’s deaf father); and Ford’s companion in later life, Dorothy Evans. All of them have relatively small roles, but if they seem portrayed as cold and distant, that may be because the camera is more or less on Robert’s side throughout: we see the world as he sees it. When he tries to explain his actions to them, he fails at every turn because his total self-absorption prevents him from relating to them as anything other than a potential vessel for his confession and absolution.

Still, if we buy into the idea that Jesse’s death is effectively an invisible contract between men, a kind of assisted suicide, the implication from Robert’s failed explanation to Dorothy would seem to be that a woman simply couldn’t understand. But on the other hand, can anyone, male or female, understand? That all these women might have meant something too is something Robert does eventually come to realise once the deed is done: ‘He thought, at his angriest, about visiting the kin of Jesse’s slaughtered victims: Mrs. William Westfall in Plattsburg, the Wymore family in Clay County, perhaps even Mrs. Joseph Heywood in Northfield, Minnesota’, the narrator tells us, in Ron Hansen’s words. ‘He would go to their homes and give his name as Robert Ford, ‘The man who killed Jesse James.’ He imagined they would be grateful to him.’

The film doesn’t end with Jesse’s death. Remarkably, after the deed was done, Robert and Charley Ford became actors, replaying the act that defined their lives in the public eye, reconstructing their crime and murdering ‘Jesse James’ well over eight hundred times on stage before paying audiences. The film’s depiction of this, with Rockwell and Affleck hamming it up in lurid white greasepaint, perfectly captures our fascination and revulsion with them and those who followed them, the many strange and apparently motiveless murderers of the eminent who would go on to haunt the twentieth-century.

The danger is that for all its supposed authenticity, this film could be accused of creating a parallel James-mythology to the one which already exists. Yet it makes no pretence to truth – there’s no serious historical revisionism, no great revelations to be had here. Though we’re invited to sympathise with both of them, the film is no more an apologia for Jesse James than it is for Robert Ford. In the end, the film undercuts the implications of its own title: Robert is shown to be anything but a coward through the quiet strength of his hidden convictions when he raises his gun in a moment that is less the treachery of an assassin than a strange act of love. He would spend the rest of his life failing to atone for that, but as it is, the film is a beautiful, sensitive portrait of his failure. ‘You’re gonna break a lot of hearts,’ says James at his most tender, and he did – he broke the heart of a nation. Robert was neither good nor bad enough for the mythology of Jesse James, but nor are any of us.