The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Directed by: Andrew Dominik | 160 minutes | drama, western | Actors: Brad Pitt, Zooey Deschanel, Mary-Louise Parker, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Ted Levine, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Schneider, Michael Parks, Pat Healy, Meredith Henderson, Brooklynn Proulx, Kailin See, Sara Fowlow, Myrna Vallance, Julie Boucher, Barbara Kozicki, Anthony Harrison, Adam Arlukiewicz, Joel McNichol, Dustin Bollinger, Joel Duncan, Tanis Dolman, Lauren Calvert, Sarah Murphy-Dyson, Jesse Frechette, Laryssa Yanchak, Karen Gartner
Candlelight, weathered and worn wood, mud and windows that are hard to see through, that’s how it must have really been. This is not a western as we know it from John Ford, or Sergio Leone, not even Clint Eastwood’s later westerns. And not just because the title is so long. In this film you will not find heroes who are tough, popping the twink or who protect the weak against the strong with a big smile. No fast guys on fast horses, with fast guns and pistols. No heroic epic with bombastic music. The film delves behind this mask of heroism and goes in search of the people behind the legends and encounters a world full of loneliness and fear.
In search of the true identity of the infamous Jesse James, who had roughly the same status in America as Che Guevara in Cuba, we also find his biggest fan, Robert Ford, a coward apparently. Yet Jesse James was also a coward. He would shoot people in the back if he had to and kill anyone who got in his way. But hey, you’re either a folk hero or you’re not. Such an image has an unparalleled persistence. Andrew Dominik lets him be even more, like a husband and family man, but above all a tormented person who led a restless, uncertain existence. Rejection. That seems to be the motive for the murder.
But there is always more going on than the surface shows. The relationship between Jesse James (Brad Pitt in a lived-in role) and his admirer Ford (Casey Affleck) is very fraught. Why did Jesse tolerate that man? There is something homoerotic about it, exciting, because you feel mutual interest as well as incomprehension and aversion. The latter mainly from Ford. He seems in love with Jesse, but seems to hate him at the same time. And why? Jealousy? The final murder is an act of self-preservation, but again there is more to it.
This is not an everyday movie. Not only does he not meet the genre standard, he surprises in many areas. The cinematography of Roger Deakins (a great one, who worked a lot for the Coen Brothers, among others) is eye-catching and also ‘different’. His images are sometimes like charcoal sketches. The voiceover sequences look as if they were filmed through the bottom of a glass, blurring the edges. It gives an alienating, old-fashioned feel, which fits well with the overall atmosphere.
Nick Cave wrote the soundtrack, which is surprisingly frivolous, which works out great. With tingling instruments, the heavy image tones find a light countercolor that puts things into perspective. Jesse’s hero status plays tricks on him, you see how he suffers from his own vigilance, and he has developed a sixth sense for betrayal. Maybe he wanted to die. In this way, Robert Ford is his Judas. The last part of the narration focuses mainly on him, after the murder. How he takes over Jesse James’ coveted star status, with all the positives and ever-growing negatives of it. This part could have been a bit shorter, after all, it is also a bit of mustard after the meal. ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ is a western like you’ve never seen before. Pure film poetry, which you have to sit down for a while. But how worth it!