America was built on myth, lies, and obsession with personality. From its inception, we told stories to convince ourselves our folk heroes and founders were beyond reproach.
The American Frontier and the Old West are two of those mythological points for this nation. The western genre became uber-popular post-World War II as we emerged on the world stage as “the good guys.” Americans in the 19th century portrayed the west as an idealistic war between the savages and “proper” civilization.
Despite the decline in popularity, many of the ideals of the genre carried through American culture and further cemented itself into the identity of this nation. Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism were already finely grained into the hearts and minds of its people, but the genre portrays the history of the United States in a fashion that appears as if we never did anything wrong, while unchecked and unregulated capitalism reigned during its heyday.
There is plenty to examine within the Old West genre, one of its most enduring archetypes is the outlaw. The “outlaw” in the Old West was a romanticized ideal, almost as much as the Sheriff coming into town to restore law and order.
The Myth: Deconstructed and Confronted
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (written and directed by Andrew Dominik) confronts the very idea of myth-making in this era and examines all its complexities. Even the title, which for years I laughed at for being ridiculous, leans into this idea.
There is a value judgment as a culture we all agreed upon: Robert Ford is a coward. But was he? And should we celebrate Jesse James?
The film follows Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) as he becomes familiar with the Jesse James gang on their last train Robbery. Here, Ford and his brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell), begin a friendly relationship with Robert’s hero, Jesse James (Brad Pitt). But as the gang starts to implode, Ford starts to realize his hero is not all that he thought he was.
The film itself doesn’t really make the same value judgment as the title suggests. Rather, it confronts it. Robert Ford has the same idealism and obsession with Jesse James, similar to the rest of the country at the time. He grew up reading the tales and exploits of the James gang and finds himself trying hard to join the gang and get close to his hero, only to find that the man isn’t what the legends told him he would be.
As in real life, the film depicts the legend of Jesse James as a sort of Robin Hood figure but what Ford witnesses is anything but that.
Performance and Conflict
James isn’t some grand folk hero. Pitt offers one of the best performances of his career, as he portrays James as a complex, paranoid family-driven man who is quick to enact violence and eventually murder those who oppose him, but also finds pleasure in the pursuit of his enemies.
It’s not hard to see what attracts people to James in the film. Pitt is oozing with charisma and truly is mesmerizing. Pitt is able to turn on the charm and easily transition into a battle of stares and wordplay so poignant that it feels like a tiger stalking its prey.
The performance is purposeful. Every twitch in his eye could spell danger for those he confronts. It’s not a showy performance but one full of depth. He utilizes his body language to display his power and director Andrew Dominik brilliantly demonstrates how simple and careful blocking can be used to express power dynamics.
Once we think we have James figured out, we get a peek into his tender side and realize neither the Robin Hood hero or the cold-blooded killer stories of him scratch the truth. Nonetheless, there is an ugly side folk songs fail to tell us and soon Robert Ford is faced with that realization.
It’s a classic case of celebrity worship (something that also dominates American culture). And in this inverse, we see maybe Ford wasn’t just a “coward”. Was he scared of James? For sure, but maybe he had a right to be?
Until Manchester by the Sea, you could argue this was Casey Affleck‘s best performance. He plays the wide-eyed kid full of wonder perfectly–nervous when he talks to his heroes, but still does his best to smile and preserve through it. Then, Affleck is faced with the dissolution of character. The admiration of James turns to anger and then, fear. There are several scenes between Affleck and Pitt where the tension is so palpable, I was squirming in my seat just from a single glance. No words were spoken, just an implied subtext that carries the weight of two Colt revolvers being aimed at one another.
It’s not a spoiler to say we know Robert Ford kills Jesse James (it’s in the title after all) but what surprised me was how it was handled. I thought the film would conclude with the death of James but instead, we carry on past the supposed climax of the film to years after with Robert and his brother, as we see how the aftermath of the assassination. The effects not only touch the Fords, but also the greater American culture. We see how the tale grabs hold of the people and Ford’s rise in celebrity was rejected so hard to keep the myth (and lie) of Jesse James alive.
This film a brilliant examination of how legends are formed in the truths and lies we repeat to each other over time.
Verisimilitude and Roger Deakins
(Editor’s Note: Yes, it’s a word. A fantastic one more geeks should use in debate at that.)
Every platitude is examined and dissected wonderfully over the course of a 2:40 runtime. This is a long movie but it never felt long, which is even more surprising considering this is one of the most stripped-down Westerns I’ve ever seen.
There are very few shootouts, and when the guns do fire, it is not glamorized but violent. Perhaps the most famous set-piece from this movie is the train robbery and even that, as impressive as it is, isn’t over-dramatized. It is perhaps the most “cinematic” piece of the movie, but ever theatrical.
Nearly the entire film is sustained by the strength of it’s acting, character work and storytelling. It doesn’t have the luxury of big action set-pieces to fall back on. Having those set-pieces would also run counter to the story the film is telling and break the carefully constructed Verisimilitude.
Shot by Roger Deakins (who also shot No Country for Old Men that same year), the movie frequently places these characters against the overwhelming force and emptiness of the western landscape. As Roger Ebert noted in his review:
“…it was photographed in the wide-open spaces of western Canada, where the land is so empty, it creates a vacuum demanding men to become legends.”
Couple that with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis‘s haunting score and the images placed in front of you resonate beyond the surface.
Occupation of the Western Genre
I love the western genre. It is one of those genres that was passed down from my grandfather to my father and to me (unlike horror, which I more or less found on my own). In that, I find the genre endlessly fascinating especially given its one-time broad appeal and eventual demise.
Moreover, it occupies a space in American history that would prove to be a transition point to a more modern era (for both good and bad reasons). Frequently, I find myself at odds with the genre I love with its endless hours of entertainment but also perpetrated myths and stereotypes that simply weren’t true. I often find myself being more attracted to westerns that look inward at themselves.
The ’50s saw hundreds of westerns (literally) used to further McCarthy-era politics with its xenophobia and easy “good guy vs. bad guy” mentality (often led by John Wayne who was a supporter of Joseph McCarthy, a white supremacist and the biggest star in Hollywood at the time).
Movies like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford may not tackle the entirety of the genre, nor should it bear the responsibility. Rather, it examines how the West brought about myths and how it penetrates a culture and offers the suggestion that maybe the truth is more complicated.
This isn’t to say every Western needs to be like Jesse James, I love a good classical western as much as the next person (hell, despite the noted indictment of John Wayne, I do like The Searchers, which is problematic in its own ways). Films like Jesse James are adding something vitally important to not only to the conversation of the genre, but also the country that gave birth to the very same genre at a crucial point in its history.
The Third Masterpiece of 2007
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford came out in a year with There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. Both of the other films are masterpieces and also occupy the western genre in some form.
The Assassination of Jesse James was critically acclaimed for the most part (scoring a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes and landing two Oscar nominations) but it was a box-office bomb bringing in $15 million on a $30-million budget. For this reason, I think the movie has disappeared from the popular conversation.
It’s unfortunate because I believe this film should be discussed in the same breath as There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. Why? It is one of the finest and deeply unrelenting westerns I have seen. It is a great movie and one that examines the genre it occupies with thoughtfulness and is brimming with things to say.
Writer/director Andrew Dominik deserves more praise and admiration for working within the lies and myths of the Western genre and forging a powerful piece in the process.