At 160 minutes, Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is frankly longer than it needs to be, but given the fact that I’m still thinking about the film three days after seeing it, still weighing this and that about its complexity, I’m not complaining too loudly about the length.
The somewhat unwieldy title should clue the viewer in on the fact that this is not your typical Western fare. The title recalls Peter Weiss’ play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (usually referred to as Marat/Sade for obvious reasons). The length of the title is undoubtedly deliberate, because it stresses the inevitability of what will happen in the course of the film and suggests that, like Marat/Sade, the characters are acting out parts they’ve been assigned (in this case by fate and nature) and over which they have no control. It also puts forth the fact that this is as much a film about Robert Ford as it is about Jesse James.
Don’t go to this movie expecting anything like Henry King’s whitewashed Jesse James (1939). You’d be little worse off if you anticipated something like William Beaudine’s astonishing (not in a good way) Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966). The closest you might come would be Sam Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949), which hints that Jesse wants Ford to shoot him. This last film offers two scenes that are found in Dominik’s film: Ford’s theatrical recreation of the murder and one in which Ford encounters a troubadour in a bar who sings the famous song about “the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave.” At that, Dominick’s film is far more complex and compelling than what even Fuller attempted.
Much of the film relates to Robert Ford’s (Casey Affleck) unabashed hero worship of Jesse (Brad Pitt). He constantly tries to ingratiate himself to the man—so much so that Jesse’s brother Frank (Sam Shepard) remarks that the kid gives him “the willies.” Jesse is to some degree flattered by all this, but senses something beneath it all when he asks, “Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?” The subtext to it all is pretty clear: Raised on the Jesse James legend (Ford has a boxful of memorabilia and dime novels featuring Jesse), the young man has become utterly fixated on the famous outlaw. It’s hero worship that’s only an inch away (if that) from being a hopeless love affair that can never be consummated. The characterization of Jesse is such that there’s little doubt that he is aware of this and accepts it—and its outcome—as a wholly inevitable occurrence.
The assassination itself is played out in such a manner that Jesse seems to be setting himself up for his own death, deliberately placing himself in the perfect position for Ford to shoot him (with a gun he gave him for a present, no less). Since Jesse is presented as plainly psychotic, this isn’t particularly far-fetched. His death, after all, ensures immortality (over 100 years later, they’re still making movies about him). As for Ford, this is a moment akin to consummation—and though he later claims that he naively thought killing Jesse would make him a hero, there’s clearly something much darker at work here. That he soon finds himself reenacting the event as a theater piece makes it clear that killing Jesse tied him to the object of his fixation far more than anything in life could have ever done.
While there’s no denying that Pitt gives a fine performance as Jesse James, the real star of the show is Casey Affleck, who manages to make Ford at once creepy and pathetic. It’s impossible to like Ford, but he does warrant some pity. Something of the same could be said for Jesse, who the film is at pains to deromanticize at every turn. Actually, the entire cast is fantastic.
Of local note is the fact that Jesse James affords Asheville’s own Paul Schneider what may be the breakthrough role of his career. Schneider has certainly enlivened a number of movies (he almost made Elizabethtown worth watching and was memorable in The Family Stone), but here he comes into his own as gang member Dick Liddil.
The film itself is deliberate in its pacing and visually beautiful, but not in a way that exactly glamorizes the Old West. The streets, towns and settings are believably grubby, muddy and dirty. So, for that matter, are some of the characters. When Jesse mentions that Ford’s brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) “smells like a skunk,” it’s not hard to believe that, if anything, he might be putting the matter politely. It all adds up to a rewarding work of unusual density. Rated R for some strong violence and brief sexual references.