The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford begins with a time lapse shot of clouds moving rapidly through a clear sky and ends with a man turning toward camera to face his killer. The shot freezes just before he can complete the turn. The message of these two shots is clear: the world moves at its own rapid pace and the actions of individuals mean little in the face of that. When we replace the word world in that sentence with history though, the shots, and the film itself, take on an entirely different meaning.
Whenever a film is released that claims to be based on historical events, there is always the danger of the line between what actually happened and what the filmmakers would have you believe happened being too thin to recognize. Few films would ever put this conflict anywhere near the center of their narrative. Assassination does and, in recounting the event of its title, deconstructs the way in which history moves to the beat of its own drum, and the actions of the characters within it mean little once the story has been established.
Consider the film’s narration. Hugh Ross executes it with minimal inflection and almost total dispassion. It resembles the voiceover you would hear synched to an A&E biography. The information conveyed deals mostly with the facts and little or no speculation about the emotions of the characters. It’s as if the narration exists entirely to frame an objective story that has indisputably occurred, with the emotions of the characters within it existing as pure happenstance.
Consider the title. I would hope the film’s director and screenwriter, Andrew Dominik, as well as the author of the book on which the film is based, Ron Hansen, would want the viewer to see Robert Ford’s killing of Jesse James as more than a simple act of cowardice. But it is as if the title reprints the legend and little more; it shows Dominik conveying how the story has been erected, and few of the complications he can depict will do much to change it.
We see this reflected in the almost predestined path that Jesse James and the Coward Robert Ford take toward their confrontation. As the film opens, Jesse is firmly entrenched as the mythological western outlaw. Ford is a callow scrub out of the brush in Blue Cut, Missouri, where the James Gang, led by Jesse and his brother, Frank (played with amusing irascibility by Sam Shepard), are planning their last train robbery. Ford begs to be let in on the caper, and Jesse obliges, telling him “I don’t care who comes with me. Never have. That’s why the call me gregarious.”
The rest of the gang consists of Ford’s dim older brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell), Jesse’s cousin, Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and the smooth-talking outlaw, Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider). All three are dismayed to find out that Jesse has decided to keep the greenhorn Ford at his house in Blue Cut after the completion of the robbery. This allows for some serious hero-worship time on the part of Ford, who grew up memorizing nickel paperback novels about Jesse James and looks at him with John Hinckley eyes.
But the relationship deepens between Jesse and the Coward. Once Frank disbands the gang, Jesse takes the two Fords on as his side men, planning a string of bank robberies with them. It is in this part of the film that Jesse begins to come apart at the seams. Both feared and revered by his comrades, he is a curmudgeon of unhealed bullet wounds, false bravado, and constant paranoia about possible betrayal. In one scene we see him interrogate a nervous gang member who thinks Jesse has heard gossip that he plans to betray him. Once he says this, his number is up. Jesse’s suspicion equals the gang member’s guilt.
There is a great tragedy to Jesse’s folk hero standing, and Pitt (no stranger to the pratfalls of celebrity himself) plays it beautifully. The world of Jesse James is a symphony for which he is the only conductor; dinner table discussion, laughter, relationships are all dictated by his actions. In the role of conductor, he becomes locked into a pattern of behavior from which he cannot escape. He begins to look at the Coward with wounded eyes, like a dog begging to be put out of his own misery.
Ford obliges, but can’t find the pride to revel in the kill. Though it was largely an act of self defense (Jesse feared betrayal at the hands of the Ford brothers and they feared for their life in his company) public opinion in the years subsequent comes to regard it more as an act of betrayal and cowardice. It doesn’t help that Ford recreates the killing on a nightly basis in the theater in New York City, a decision he bears the shame for later in life.
Ultimately, the film comes to explore the identity struggle the two men experience as a result of the roles they inhabit. Jesse is no longer a participant in his own story; his life becomes consumed with preventing betrayal and living up to the legend he has created for himself. Ultimately, the only moment left for him to control is his own death. Ford experiences a similar frustration, fighting to stave off the accusations of cowardice. His defeat is a spiritual one; once the myth is created, there is little that the individual can do to change it.
Assassination represented something of a revamping of the western in 2008 alongside James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma. While it is more effective as a character study than it is as a genre film, it demonstrates that the western framework is one of the best for telling stories about men fighting to distinguish themselves in a world that threatens to crush them. Cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots the film with a lot of snow and rain, demonstrating how the environment threatens to destroy the characters. There is a great shot where Wood rides out of the snow with a scraggly beard covered in white and hair down to his shoulders. There is another interesting moment where Jesse and Charley walk across a frozen lake, and a suicidal Jesse fires two shots into the ice, tempting it to break. In this world, men feel compelled to stand up against the landscape.
The supporting performances in the film are fascinating. Jeremy Renner is only allowed a few moments as Wood Hite, but builds a character of them—you get the sense of a well mannered young man too hung up on his own principles, consistently being left behind by others. Paul Schneider gives Liddil a charm blended with a childish humanity; when he sleeps with Wood’s stepmother, he seems to think it is like sticking his hand in the incorrect cookie jar. And Sam Rockwell, in the complex role of Charley, finds the soul of a man torn between loyalty for Jesse and a sense of practicality about not getting his own head blown off.
Casey Affleck had a star-making year in 2008, with this film and Gone Baby Gone, and richly deserved it; his Robert Ford is the perfect blend of adolescent swagger and the innocence of a primary schooler with no idea what he has done.
Pitt does no wrong in the film and his performance is a landmark in his career. With dark hair, a half grown beard, and an older man’s face that betrays more wounds than in any role before, we are let to know that a true leading man has been made.