Considering that the very title of Andrew Dominik’s 2007 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford spoils a major plot event in the film, it wouldn’t be totally unbefitting of me to start this piece with a yet another major spoiler from film. This one comes in the form of omniscient narration in the seconds leading up to Robert Ford’s untimely death:
“There would be no eulogies for [Robert Ford], no photographs of his body would be sold in sundries stores, no people would crowd the streets in the rain to see his funeral cortege, no biographies would be written about him, no children named after him, no one would ever pay twenty-five cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in.”
History, as seen through the present, holds the power to immortalize or eternally condemn. Now, even more than a century after his death Jesse James has become a household name. When mentioned he’s often regarded as a folk hero much in the vain of other cultural figures (Robin Hood being a preeminent one), those branded hero by the poor and menace by the rich and powerful. His famous last years, recorded in American folk legend and the annals of history, have often been paralleled to the dying days of the Old West. As the frontier was slowly consumed by encroaching civilization men like Jesse James (the last of their kind) forever became a popular luminary for minstrels, poets and storytellers.
A cruel stipulation, often required in the creation of myth and legend, is that for every hero there’s always at least one designated villain. (No Robin Hood legend was complete without the Sheriff of Nottingham). For Jesse James, the notorious outlaw, murderer and train robber, legend has seemed to assigned the 20-year-old Robert Ford that dubious honor, forever aligning him in the ranks of America’s most notorious villains Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Boothe and Jack McCall. A crude summation of James’ death was that he was shot by the young Robert Ford while his back was turned. While true, the particulars of the case were often ignored by the population at large (resulting in the young man’s unpopularity).
Soon after the assassination, the story of James’ death by government agent Robert Ford, accompanying the notorious outlaw Jesse James under the guise of his ‘accomplice’, became the story of James’ murder by traitor and backstabber Robert Ford.
To quote a famous line from one of America’s great westerns, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Where history is concerned, people are far more fascinated with shapes and essences than they are with details and particulars. The gaps between history’s big events go mostly ignored, what comes before and what comes after are trivial details, moments and even seconds define legends, not weeks, months or years.
For the young hopeful Robert Ford, the nineteen years before meeting his idol Jesse James were wrought with a yearning for glory and the celebrity that followed. “I honestly believe I’m destined for great things,” Robert proclaims (almost confessing) to the older James brother, Frank. Needless to say Frank doesn’t share young Robert’s enthusiasm and, as Robert soon discovers, nor should he. Accompanying Jesse James, Robert experiences the Old West in its death throes and slowly comes to see in the frontier, as he does in the notorious outlaw himself, not a rich legend but a crushing and overwhelming emptiness.
At first, Robert’s fascination with Jesse James mirrors much of the general public, his opinion on the outlaw is misinformed, idealistic and fictitious. It’s no surprise then that the opening moments of Andrew Dominik’s western introduce Jesse James’s as an abstraction. Underscoring it is Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score, they provide enough other-worldliness to the soundtrack to give one the impression of a dream or fairy tale. Roger Deakins’ avant-garde use of wide-angle, which uses chromatic distortion around the borders of the frame, conveys a sense of legend being filtered through history. The narration, spoken in a deadpan, matter-of-fact way starts the account of Jesse James as a brief selection of his most peculiar traits:
“He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious, lest that mutilation be seen. He also had a condition that was referred to as “granulated eyelids” and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies, nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was thirty-four-years-old.”
Andrew Dominik’s vision for the dying west seems ingrained in a sense of impending mortality, the title of the film even suggests an imminent and inevitable ruin. But even with death constantly in the foreground, the film is very much about a pursuit of immortality, a rank only shared by the most famous of outlaws, gunslingers and cowboys. In the Old West, this kind of celebrity only came in the form of infamy, notoriety and disrepute,there’s a reason why the most recognizable names in the Old West (“Wild Bill” Hickok, Billy the Kid, etc.) are names that only remained in the American consciousness only because they outlasted the trail of corpses they often left behind.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, more than a biopic on the notorious outlaw of the title, centers on the misunderstood and troubled relationship between he and the young but increasingly less naive Robert Ford. Jesse’s tale, one of decay and downfall, Robert’s, one of disillusion and embitterment, spoke more truths about the Old West’s decline in the eyes of modern American audiences than any film since Sam Peckinpah’s interminable The Wild Bunch or Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. The American frontier, now governed by old men in suits, was no longer bound by the antiquated virtues and codas of Manifest Destiny but a very modern capitalistic opportunism. For Robert Ford, however, the choice was neither political or financially motivated but something simpler, become the man famous for killing Jesse James or stay just Robert Ford.
Despite his vanity and desire for infamy, Dominik makes Ford’s decision to kill James an articulate and devastatingly moral one. The sequence in which Robert Ford shoots Jesse James itself is sublime in its construction in spaces of moral and emotional ambiguity. Filmed in complete silence (after Jesse James utters his famous last words) the scene relies on Ellis and Cave’s music to provide the scene’s tragic portents, as well as Sam Rockwell and Casey Affleck’s panicked, agonized expressions to provide its harrowing ultimatum. Despite the modest, almost empty domestic room in which the moment is set, the scene is rich in detail and specificity in a way that the drab surroundings and environment come alive through character, transcending the literal.
Following Jesse’s murder the story of Robert Ford takes a dark and melancholic turn, divorced from the Old West Robert Ford’s exploits become illusions propped onto stage, where he and his brother (in more ways than one) relive their defining moment for the American public. Picking apart history from legend we don’t learn much about Jesse James or Robert Ford as people but rather as figures entrenched in an interweaving pattern of fact and make-believe. The film, however convincing, is not a definitive historical account of the two outlaws but discovering the meeting point of where legend meets fact, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford stands as perhaps the greatest inquiry into their myth.