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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford     

Posted by Katherine Putnam on March 4th, 2012

“He was ashamed of his boasting, his pretensions of courage and ruthlessness. He was sorry about his cold-bloodedness, his dispassion, his inability to express what he now believed was the case: That he truly regretted killing Jesse, that he missed the man as much as anybody, and wished his murder hadn’t been necessary.”

I put off writing this post until I could watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford a second time. Even after a second, closer viewing, I still don’t feel that I caught enough, noticed enough to appreciate the subtleties, the scope, the grit, the tension, and the beauty of this film. Part of me wants to continue to put off writing this because I know that my powers of observation and analysis remain quite immature and rudimentary; despite that cowardly wish I will soldier on, if for no other reason than I made a resolution to do a film post a week and I do not want to get any more behind than I already have on that front.

“I’ll tell you one thing that’s certain; you won’t fight dying once you’ve peeked over to the other side; you’ll no more want to go back to your body than you’d want to spoon up your own puke.”

“Folks sometimes take me for a nincompoop on account of the shabby first impression I make, whereas I’ve always thought of myself as being just a rung down from the James Brothers…I was hoping I could show you how special I am. I honestly believe I’m destined for great things, Mr. James. I’ve got qualities that don’t come shining through right at the outset, but give me a chance and I’ll get the job done- I can guarantee you that.”

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was written and directed by Andrew Dominik, who based his screenplay on the 1983 Ron Hansen novel of the same name. Dominik’s adaptation came out in 2007 and starred Brad Pitt as the famous outlaw and Casey Affleck as the coward who killed him. The movie boasts truly incredible performances not only by the two leads, but also by the supporting cast: Sam Rockwell (as Charley Ford), Jeremy Renner (Wood Hite), Sam Shepard (Frank James), Garret Dillahunt (Ed Miller), Paul Schneider (Dick Liddil), and Mary-Louise Parker (Zee James).

If I had to pick one word to encapsulate Assassination, I would have to pick tension. I’ll admit that I was both amazed and wonderfully surprised by the varied and interwoven tensions the film was able to create and sustain. It seemed odd to me, as I clicked play for my first viewing of the movie, that the title of the film should so completely give away the resolution; I wondered how the film would be able to sustain my interest for two hours and forty minutes when I knew the outcome before the first frame appeared on the screen.

Of course, Assassination is not the only work of fiction to start off by giving away the ending. Though perhaps not the best example I could think of, Romeo and Juliet is the first example to jump to mind. Shakespeare begins his tale with a sonnet that lets the audience know exactly what is going to happen. In fourteen lines we know all about the feud, the young lovers’ plight, and that only after their tragic demise are the two families finally able to put aside their hatred. Um…spoiler alert, Shakespeare! Yet, the prologue spoils nothing. (And yes, I’m ignoring the tangent I could go on about how this wasn’t a new story, Shakespeare was just retelling it, so naturally the bones of the plot aren’t a big surprise.) The tension of the play comes not from wondering if Romeo and Juliet will survive, but from wondering when and how they will perish, and who else may die before the feud has ended. Revealing the main plot points does not leave the story without mystery or tension, instead it leaves us free to become absorbed by the details that make up the progression towards those main points.

Such is the case with Assassination. The title (and history, but I’m ignoring that tangent the same way I ignored that “plagiarism” tangent above) gives away the biggest plot point: Robert Ford kills Jesse James. Freed from that uncertainty, we are able to focus on the whys and hows and struggles that lead to that conclusion.

I said that the key word I would attach to this film is tension. There is, despite the spoiler-as-a-title issue I mentioned above, plenty of tension as the film rolls along. We know James will die, but when? We know Ford will do it, but why? And, like Romeo and Juliet, who else will die before the foretold death(s) of the title character(s)? For Assassination does not focus solely on James and Ford; the film sets aside plenty of scenes between James and the other members of his gang (Dick Liddil, Wood Hite, Ed Miller, Charley Ford) that are filled with fear and uncertainty. Does James suspect them of treachery? Will he kill them rather than risk the chance that they may turn witness against him? Even between the members of the gang there are betrayals and grudges and violent confrontations (the shootout between Liddil and Hite jumps to mind). We may know Jesse James’ fate, but we do not know how or when he will arrive there; we are thus swept along in a constant state of unease as we wonder, at each scene, if this will be James’ last or if it will instead be the end for a different character.

Life and death tension aside, I was most intrigued by the emotional and psychological tensions sustained throughout the film. The relationship between Robert Ford and Jesse James is a strange one from the start. Ford admires James (ever since he was a young boy, Ford has collected newspaper clippings, dime novels, and tall tales about James); James is Ford’s favorite and most beloved hero. Ford is desperate for the chance to join the James Gang and prove himself to his hero, to join his hero in the exploits he has, heretofore, only read about. Yet, it remains disturbingly unclear whether Ford wants to be like James, or if he wants to become James. Jesse James asks this very question of Ford after catching Ford attempting (again) to sneak up on him during a private moment. Ford’s behavior towards James is an odd combination of extreme reverence and nerves born of being in front of a beloved idol, and the unsettling watchfulness of someone who is practicing and waiting to take over a coveted role. This tension crests during several scenes of the movie, but perhaps none more so than the scene where Ford, left alone in James’ house, wanders about and imagines himself in James’ place–as James–going so far to lay down in James’ bed and bend his finger so as to imitate the look of James’ missing knuckle.

If it were not enough that Ford is unable to determine whether he wants to join James or become James, Ford is also faced with the tension that arises when one meets a hero and must deal with the unexpected conflict between the hero he imagined and the reality of the man in front of him. James is an extremely flawed (paranoid, moody, prone to fits of temper, etc) character and Pitt does an excellent job of quietly highlighting James’ inner struggles. The majority of Pitt’s performance is so understated, reserved, and subtle that it makes the moments of manic aggression that much more unsettling and frightening (to us and to the other characters). Pitt’s portrayal helps draw us into the tension that Ford struggles against. We are given glimpses of the hero, but these glimpses are overshadowed by the day to day realities of the man. Ford makes attempt after attempt (in conversations with others, and in conversations with James) to force the man back onto the shattered pedestal of the hero. Affleck does a commendable job, letting Ford’s confusion, unease, disappointment, and love play against each other in his every action and expression. Like Pitt, Affleck crafts his performance in such a way that we are drawn into the tensions within his character. We are no more able to reconcile man with myth than Ford.

Assassination works as a whole to highlight the interplay of tensions by remaining stark and understated. Many scenes take place in quiet, devoid of non-diegetic sound (soundtrack). Of the scenes that do utilize non-diegetic orchestration, much of the music remains soft, subtle, and melancholy. The soundtrack does not function in competition with the action, nor does it dictate our understanding of the scene as a whole as some soundtracks tend to do (programming our reactions by using the music to tell us whether we should be happy, sad, scared, etc). Just as the music does not overwhelm us or distract us from the delicate unraveling playing out before us, the visual make up of the film also remains stark and inconspicuous. There is an exquisite lack of bold colors in the film. The characters largely dress in whites (often yellowed or dirty), browns, and blacks. The landscape is harsh, filled with washed out yellows, greens, whites, and browns. If a non-neutral color is used it is generally a subdued version of the vibrant color that usually comes to mind when we think yellow or green. Vibrant spots of color only appear when blood is spilt. By showing restraint in the use of music, and by stylizing the look of the film to reflect its stark setting and dark subject matter, the filmmakers allowed the personal and psychological tensions of the film to take center stage.

I often find myself looking for a “message” in a film. Perhaps this is due to too many kids’ programs and Disney films, where we were obviously supposed to take away a clear message such as “don’t judge others” or “don’t be greedy.” Lately I’ve tried to take a similar, but slightly different, tack of looking for a theme to serve as a jumping off point for growth, rather than a be-all end-all definition of truth. At this moment, I find myself focusing on Ford’s inability to cope with disappointment or critique. His dreams–dreams of a special destiny and adventuring alongside a coveted idol–were bigger than he was. Yet dreams and realities have a troublesome way of not matching up. What do we do when the world does not hand us our dreams like we expected? How do we accept that we are not as hardened and mature as we envision ourselves? How do we reconcile what we want with what we can actually achieve? Do we refuse to see reason, as Ford did for much of the picture? Do we lash out and act more cowardly to prove our bravery, and more childish to prove our maturity? Do we become vengeful and bitter, making bad choices in an effort to get our own back after a disappointment? And how do we cope when, after our emotions have settled, we realize that though we told ourselves that our actions were motivated by new-found courage, they were actually motivated by an unacknowledged cowardice?

I don’t find myself walking away with any answers, and I’m glad for that. Real life rarely hands us cut and dry answers the way kids’ shows pretend it does. Often times finding an answer requires a lot of hard work, uncomfortable introspection, facing the truth that we can only shape ourselves and not the world around us. But I am glad for the nudges that art can give us. The way a film can pose problems we can relate to in a way different from what we’re used to seeing, allowing us to learn through story.

Of course, this is only what I’ve taken away from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford after two viewings. I look forward to watching it a third, fourth, twelfth time; I know that I have thus far gleaned very little in comparison to what this film has to offer.

I give Assassination my highest recommendation. Though, for my conscience’s sake, I must warn about some salty language, coarse humor, sexual references, and violence. (They’re outlaws…what do you expect?)

NEXT TIME: Away We Go

P.S. – Fun fact: according to IMDb.com, “of all the films made about Jesse James, his descendants have claimed that this is the most accurate.”


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