A mouthful of a title for an eyeful of a movie. Yes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is one of the most visually stunning movies I have ever had the pleasure of seeing, not for the vibrant colors and exotic locales – there are none of these, unless you’d consider Missouri to be exotic… – but for the breath-taking beauty evoked in its muted earth tones and bleak landscapes. Sprawling shots of the Old West are largely empty – of foliage, of structures, and of people – communicating the loneliness and emptiness felt by each and every character showcased in the film. The scenery only enhances what is a truly epic story of idol worship and distortion of celebrity, presenting facts alongside possibility in an almost jarringly realistic and gripping way. The Assassination… does not glamorize Jesse James, nor does it demonize him, and therein lies its greatest strength. So loosen up that tie, kick up your feet, and get ready for some eloquent, philosophical musings.
The titular characters are played to a T by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, respectively. Pitt’s Jesse James carries the right amount of menace, sympathy, and mystique. We are never truly savvy to exactly what is going on just behind those slightly glazed eyes of his, but it seems to border on either insanity or genius. Affleck’s Robert Ford, on the other hand, is almost painfully earnest. He is devoted to his hero, James, as if he were a cool older brother, and strives for his acceptance and love in a childlike way. As these two ‘tagonists interact and circle closer and closer to their inevitable collision, you have no idea who to root for. You know it will culminate in the assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford (is the title really a spoiler?), but questions of heroism and villainy, cowardice and bravery cloud the morals more than Johnnie Cochran. Utilizing impeccable camera tricks of the trade, a stellar cast, and a moving score, sophomore director Andrew Dominik is voted most likely to be stomped by an aspiring auteur. The Australian writer-director is living the art house dream, making personal movies on an epic scale, and with a budget to boot. And he’s only made two films… the first of which was the equally acclaimed Chopper (2000). When you’ve only made two films, and both are award-winners, you’re bound to make some enemies.
The Assassination… is an anti-Western of sorts, even more so than Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the most name-dropped anti-Western of all time. It doesn’t glorify gunplay and violence; it simply presents them as a necessary and common part of the American Old West. The effects are brutal as all hell, but it is an essential part of the world of Jesse James. The gunfighters more often than not miss their targets; no one goes out in a blaze of glory. The characters are mostly two-faced, motivated only by money and personal survival. In short, it is a harsh, harsh world. Because of this, the beauty of The Assassination… is surprising. In a story where it seems like everything is always on the verge of collapse, everything is all the more precious. The climax of the film, the titular event, is not the final showdown depicted in most Westerns. It is instead an event motivated by emptiness. Jesse James, Wild West outlaw, is depressed and despondent, jaded by the world and the life he lives in it. He is not of the stuff that legend would make him out to be, but just a man. Robert Ford is alone, desperate for the recognition and infamy that his boyhood hero has shirked. In a way it’s almost a passing of the torch, as Ford’s life begins to mirror James’ in all the wrong ways after the assassination. Just as Jesse became famous, a kind of Robin Hood figure, Robert becomes infamous, the killer of a national treasure. It is cyclical and bleak, but in the films closing shot – Robert Ford defiantly facing his own assassin – there is a strange sense of hope, of a lesson-learned and a life-lived. Of catharsis.