It’s something pretty special when a modern western can find itself entering the classic canon of the genre, and 10 years ago, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford joined those profoundly aged and widely esteemed ranks. Sure, westerns aren’t exactly popping out of the gates like gangbusters or anything, but even still, this is a film that made people stop and take notice, even in one of the greatest years in film history. So what gives? What makes Jesse James stand out, even a decade later?
Well, for starters. there’s something so shocking and visceral about a film like this. The fact that the purposely overlong title leaves absolutely no room for doubt as to what will happen is part of the power of Andrew Dominik’s solemn, brooding picture. Somehow, the overbearing nature of a title like that casts a long, dark shadow over the entirety of the film, allowing for no relief from the mounting tension, even during the rare lightening of the mood over the staggering 160-minute run time. It’s like if Romeo and Juliet was re-titled Romeo and Juliet Fall In Love and then Commit Suicide.
You can see the whole movie in a microcosm, not only through the title, but also through the way Bob looks at Jesse the first time they meet. There’s a lunatic’s version of love in the hero worship that the starstruck Bob carries with him, and it finds itself a clear match in our modern version of celebrity culture. After all, is it not the Bob Fords of the world who have taken John Lennon, Selena Perez, and a host of others from us?
There’s something intoxicating about the idea of celebrity, but there’s also something destructive about it. A drunkard’s lingering on the idea of a man is seen in Bob’s embarrassing obsession with his hero, an obsession that manifests in one early scene where Bob (an adept Casey Affleck) recites many of Jesse’s fictional deeds, as reported in the 10-cent western novels he devours so liberally. It isn’t just here, with poor, pathetic Bob, though — it’s also mirrored in the despondent, disconnected nature of Jesse himself.
Jesse James, as played by Brad Pitt, walks through this film like a ghost. It’s as if the pronouncement of his death by the film’s title is following him through every single frame. He’s like a 19th century rock star who has run through every high he can find in his world. It’s as if society has drained him of his lifeblood through the very fact of his infamy. He’s not bad enough to be the legendary outlaw that the law wants, and he’s not good enough to be the redemptive Robin Hood-type he is cast as by the poor and downtrodden.
So who is he, really? Well, that’s the ultimate mystery of a film like this. Jesse James is a folk hero who is still known to just about every man, woman and child in the United States and a hell of a lot more the world over, but who is he, and what is it like to live the life of an accidental celebrity in the old west? You can see the answer in the glassy, empty pools of his eyes. You can see it in the way he decapitates a charmed snake just to feel it die on his arm, and you can see it in the way he turns his back on Bob Ford during the hour of his doom. That Jesse’s death in The Assassination of Jesse James is cast as a willing one, a sort of suicide by proxy, should not be lost on anyone.
To frame it again with our modern society, how many more of our heroes and heroines have we lost to overdoses and suicides? When you look at it that way, you begin to see the cursed effect that an ever-watchful eye can have on someone, and the toll it can take over the years that it gazes down upon you, watching, waiting. This Big Brother-like force is essentially personified by Bob, and it’s no accident that Bob takes on this role more and more as time goes by. He sucks the courage, the heart, and the red-blooded life out of Jesse as the film ticks on, minute by minute. He stares at Jesse, devouring him with his eyes, accepting any bit of kindness as though it were a drop of water in his desert of isolation.
The irony of it all, of course, is that Bob becomes infected by Jesse’s disease after taking his life. After the titular deed is done, Bob takes on the haunted visage that has followed Jesse throughout The Assassination of Jesse James, his only claim to fame being the celebrity status allowed to him for murdering his hero in cold blood. His lunatic eyes only come to life when he finds himself questioned by his peers, or called out for his actions, like in a stage performance of his shameful deed, where he plays himself, late in the film. “Coward!” Curr!” people call out at him, and he begins pointing the gun at the audience itself, his new watchers, here to drain him of what he has left, as he did to Jesse.
And so Bob too seems to welcome death when it comes in the form of Edward O’Kelley, a reaper of a man who would come a long way to deliver justice to Bob at last. Set to the best of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ original score, titled simply “Song for Bob,” the death of Robert Ford is given as much weight and gravitas as that of his unwitting idol. There’s a sort of deliberate poetry to it all, and that magnanimous bit of fatalism entrenches itself in the final minutes of the film, extending itself even into the credits.
On a personal note, I can remember those credits, and not because I was waiting for some stinger scene, but because I was so stung, so wrenched, and so utterly gutted by the conclusion of the film that I was unable to leave my seat. I sat in the theater as people began to file out, and just watched those words roll across the darkened screen while it all settled in my equilibrium.
I still feel that way when I watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, to this day.