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?

Casey Affleck made people stand up and take notice in 2007, with The Assassination of Jesse James and Gone, Baby Gone releasing over the course of just a few months.

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.

Every scene in The Assassination of Jesse James is shot with a sense of deliberation and meaning. Take this lingering shot of Bob, blurred into the background, as he prepares to shoot a willing Jesse in the back.

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.

With his death firmly in the past, not even Jesse’s remains are safe from the prying eyes of the public, as crowds gather just to stare at his empty husk.

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.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he’s still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there’s hope for him, there’s hope for everyone. He’s the managing Games editor for Goomba Stomp, and the creator of the weekly Buffyversed column.

Leave a comment below.

Latest Posts

AMC has released the official key art for the highly anticipated eighth season of The Walking Dead, which returns Sunday, October 22 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT, with its 100th episode. The art features Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his group...
light fall

‘Light Fall’ Coming to Nintendo Switch

Light fall has been announced for the Nintendo Switch, having previously been announced for Windows, Mac, PlayStation, and Xbox.
Final Fantasy IX

‘Final Fantasy IX’ is an Often Overlooked Classic

It seems like Final Fantasy IX was destined to be overlooked right from the outset. The game was released for the original PlayStation after the PlayStation 2 was out and selling like warm buns, and the high fantasy setting was in stark contrast to the popular cyber-punk and more realistic settings of FFVII and VIII (two of the best selling entries in the whole series).

Sordid Cinema Podcast #531: Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’

This week on the Sordid Cinema podcast we discuss Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, a thought-provoking, albeit disturbing vision that may be too unwieldy for mainstream tastes.

Game Boys, Ep. 76: Ghaul, Guardians, and Ghosts Galore!

Eyes up, Guardians, Destiny 2 is here.  Well, this is a podcast, so ears up?  Anyway, here's the Game Boys initial review of one of the biggest sequels of the year.  Listen in as they cover everything from campaign to Crucible, inventory to endgame, and, of course, the raid.  So, join us, it is your destiny!

Top 10 Games with Writer, Brent Middleton

Get to know our writers on a more personal level with their Top 10 Games lists. This time, writer Brent Middleton gushes about his faves.

‘mother!’ Doesn’t Love You; Can You Love It?

Wearing its passionate, bloody heart on its sleeve, mother! is the gift of all gifts for those who love movies: a fountain of cinematic and philosophical conversation wrapped up in skillfully bold genre filmmaking.

Demo Dive – ‘Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth’

WIth less than a month till release, let's take a look at the Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth demo currently available on the 3DS E-Shop.

‘Doom’, ‘Wolfenstein ll’, and What This Means for the Switch

What does Doom and Wolfenstein II mean for third-party support for the Nintendo Switch?