It’s a well-known fact: the cinematic year of 2007 was one for the ages. Those fortunate enough to live through it remember the year fondly; those who, like myself, thrived at that point on a steady diet of Veggie Tales and Disney’s Homeward Bound, admire it from afar in wistful retrospect. In perhaps the best harvest of the century so far, audiences reaped career-high offerings from the Coens, David Fincher, Edgar Wright, and Pixar; two renowned Andersons presented passion projects — Paul Thomas’ was a masterpiece, Wes’ was not; and the Spider-Man, Bourne, Ocean’s, and Pirates trilogies all concluded in finales of mostly satisfying natures (though all would eventually fall prey to various reboots, tacked-on sequels, and uninspired continuations, this was a happy and innocent time when success at the box office did not instill dread of imminent cinematic universes). In short, it was a great year to be a cinephile. Such an overwhelming volume of promising material could mean only good things for the year-end top ten lists and award season. This proved mostly true; but, as is often the case, overabundance will tend to lead one towards underappreciation.
This, I think, is what happened with Andrew Dominik’s unobtrusive masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. My speculation is that moviegoers of 2007, finding its overtly quiet, contemplative nature comparatively disagreeable, paid little attention to that long, slow Western film when so many bigger, louder, Oscar sure-fire alternatives were whirling in and out of theaters and award shows. I find this to be a great tragedy, for I consider The Assassination of Jesse James to be not only the best motion picture of 2007, but also one of my very favorite films of all time. I’ll attempt here to explain, in part at least, the underappreciated greatness of this future classic.
I must preface, however, that some films simply work, performing a wonderful and inexplicable magic on a plane inaccessible through analysis and deconstruction – and while I won’t go as far as Morf Vandewalt, I will say that Jesse James is one of those films whose intangibility adds to its transcendent power. While a great film can both withstand and emerge better appreciated through dissection, it can also just be felt, captivating any who approach it in a trance of ambient storytelling. I say all this in hope that the proceeding interpretation not undermine the film’s beguiling atmospheric qualities, for what Dominik, Roger Deakins, and Nick Cave have captured here is nothing short of lighting in a bottle. Deakins’ cinematography is the best of his career, Cave’s original score is close behind The Lord of the Rings for best of the decade, and every element in between weaves a sumptuous tapestry of encompassing beauty.
This tapestry spins the tale of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) – the gunslinger, the highwayman, the notorious outlaw – functioning as less of a traditional biographical narrative and more as an intimate character study. Documented here are the final months of a living legend, meticulously crafted to show the plottings and motives and dynamics at play. Watching the film unfold as followers of a beloved leader plot his demise behind his back, it’s interesting to note The Assassination of Jesse James is essentially a retelling of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Here the treacherous Senate is comprised of Wood Hite, Dick Liddil, Ed Miller, and Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), former followers turned apostates, fearing for their lives at the hands of the increasingly volatile Jesse James. But these names and faces take side stage to Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), the Brutus of this tale and his relationship with Jesse the prime narrative.
Jesse is the leader, Bob the follower; Jesse the idol, Bob the idolizer; Jesse the myth, Bob the believer. This dynamic is established almost immediately, the film opening with a narrated poetic portrait of Jesse as a man. The ethereal, hypnotic nature of this beautiful sequence portrays the infamous outlaw’s standing as living legend, but it also cues us in to the reality of his mortality, a fact that haunts and looms over every frame of the film. It’s as if Jesse is as aware of his ultimate fate as we are, the very title of the film warning us of the inescapable conclusion to this tale. Bob, on the other hand, is blissful and naive in the presence of his lifelong hero; and though his eventual arc will consist of the worship of his idol gradually plunging into jealous rage, he begins the film in the peak of adoration.
This peak of adoration is where Bob has spent his entire childhood – up until the beginning of the film, in fact, when he is nineteen and on the cusp of adulthood. Bob and his brother Charley have joined Jesse’s gang in order to participate in an upcoming train robbery, and are lounging around the camp participating in bawdy yarns and recollections with fellow bandits and comrades. It’s in these first few minutes that Bob actually meets his lifelong hero for the first time, and their subsequent interaction is immensely significant. He approaches Jesse, intending to wish him a happy birthday, but the outlaw interrupts his eager admirer to recount a vulgar story of a woman he once saw who could slurp noodles up her nose. It’s unexpected and shocking, and Bob is taken aback: this was not the attitude he anticipated from the legendary icon. Thus his disillusionment begins.
The first interaction between Jesse and Bob is also Dominik’s first hint at the film’s innately revisionist nature: that expectations established by culture, genre platitudes, or even the film’s very title will ultimately be fulfilled to unforeseen results. We see this played out most noticeably in Jesse James’ refusal to conform to elements typical of the Western genre. Grandiose displays of bravado and heroism are nowhere to be seen (it’s noteworthy that the members of Jesse’s band are first introduced, as mentioned above, swapping crude jokes and chuckling like adolescent children), action and glorious combat are interchanged for infrequent bursts of awkward, graphic violence, and no one rides victorious into the sunset. It’s this context of expectations and setups giving way to jolting reversals that allows for an intriguing reading of the film, specifically the final act: that the title of the movie, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is intentionally misleading. The real coward of this tale is not Robert Ford, but Jesse James himself.
We see the suffering in his eyes from the opening frames. Jesse knows that the world is changing, growing smaller by the day, leaving no room for legends as large as the outlaw. It’s hard for him to accept (and hard for us to, as well – this is one of the saddest films I can immediately call to mind). “You ever consider suicide?” Jesse asks Charley Ford, standing on a frozen lake and gazing down through the ice. “I’ll tell you one thing that’s certain: you won’t fight dying once you’ve peeked over to the other side.” Then he pulls out his gun and shoots down between his feet, into the icy floor. When the sharp cracks of gunfire echo into silence and the ice still holds, Jesse looks almost despondent, bringing to mind Caesar’s famous line suggesting that “Cowards die many times before their deaths.” By the end of the film, then, it comes as little no surprise when he gives Bob the gift of a revolver, and the underlying subtext of his passive acceptance is heartbreakingly clear. Caesar asked “Et tu, Brute?” in woeful disbelief, but Jesse knew full well the intentions of his once-trusted companion. The real tragedy is that he also welcomes them.
The film’s final half hour or so follows the aftermath of Bob’s murderous endeavour. We witness him gain an immediate swagger, a confidence, a pride in his monumental action. “You might want to keep that,” he tells the postman as he hands over a telegraph: “Have killed Jesse James.” He views himself now as a true man, rendered worthy through his actions to leave behind the innocence of adolescence. But as the years progress onscreen, his confidence fades. Regret sets in, then a deep sadness. C. S. Lewis said, “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Robert Ford has come to realize the foolishness of his immaturity. His rejection of his childhood hero did not make him a man, nor did violence. He is old enough now to appreciate their worth and joys, but it is too late. Jesse James is dead, killed by Bob’s own hand.
Two men, each holding an influence so vast that their respective empires are forever tied to their names. Caesar’s Rome died with Caesar, at least in one form, and it’s clear that Dominik is binding Jesse James and America in much the same way. The melancholic air of mourning that pervades the film grieves the loss of an entire era, history’s final bow before the curtain closes on the pre-modern age. Considering how chronologically accurate the film is, the time period over which it unfolds is remarkably poignant: the very end of the nineteenth century, the last to precede the first decidedly “modern” century. With Jesse James, the man who epitomized the daydream of every adventurous lover of myth and lore, an American ideal rose, thrived, and died. His passing, Dominik suggests, ushered in a postmodern age with little patience for myth or legend, where the bridging gap between childhood fantasy and mature adulthood requires forever putting to death our most cherished stories and fairy-tales. Such is the great tragedy of The Assassination of Jesse James.
The curtain fell with Caesar and rose again with Augustus, and Rome was never the same. So it fell with Jesse James, and so was America reborn. For better or for worse, history repeats itself, progressing and regressing but being sanctified all the while. And so it will until the end of time itself, when all the best fairy-tales and myths will be proven good, and true, and forever immortal.