The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Hidden Gems

Andrew Dominik’s 2007 revisionist epic is a breath of fresh air.

Genevieve Badia-Aylin

The Wild West has become the stuff of legend. Like the illustrious epics of Greek and Roman Antiquity, or the Arthurian sagas, the romanticised image of cowboys and outlaws has defied the sands of time. Carefully cultivated by the likes of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, the Wild West has developed a daring public mythos that has reached all four corners of the world. One would, naturally, expect a great Western to embody all of that.

‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ is not that Western.

Conversely, Andrew Dominik’s 2007 revisionist epic is a breath of fresh air. Instead of celebrating the fantasy of the gunslinging hero, it strips it back entirely: it rejects the Herculean for the introspective, in a way that seems more arthouse indie drama than Hollywood blockbuster. Aided by Roger Deakins’ spellbinding cinematography – shot to mimic the lenses of the late 1800s, the camera illustrates the empty, open vistas of an as yet-untamed country, an endless sense of loneliness permeating every frame – as well as Nick Cave’s beautifully melancholic score, the film refutes the glossy romanticism of its predecessors to give a new perspective on a folkloric Western hero.

The film follows Jesse James (a charismatic yet terrifying Brad Pitt), the famed American train robber, as he navigates the last few months before his murder at the hands of his accomplice, the naïve but ambitious Robert Ford. Casey Affleck is expertly unsettling as Ford, as his star-struck awe at James, his childhood idol, slowly dissipates in front of our eyes. We, the audience, can only watch in horror as this awe turns into disillusionment, then resentment, before finally culminating in a vicious storm of loathing and adoration which will result in both their demises. Similarly, Pitt’s performance is magnetising, capturing both the charm expected of the celebrity ‘Jesse James’ and the jarring reality of the man behind it. The traditional glorification of the Old West is traded for a scathing commentary on celebrity culture that seems eerily relevant today, and the audience can only watch on, helpless, as James’s cult of personality gradually and inevitably descends into violence.

The game played between James and Ford is not simply one of cat-and-mouse, but something far more complex, verging on the many lines between father and son, mentor and apprentice; even, at times, their relationship is something more akin to lovers than enemies. The simmering tension between them ebbs and flows incessantly, pushed along by the dancing lyricisms of dated, Southern-accented dialogue that constantly remind us of the futility of these characters. We are never allowed to forget that what we are witnessing is already fixed: Ford will murder his idol and suffer for it. Each scene is permeated by the feeling that James is well aware of his fate- the question for him is not if he’ll be bested, but, rather, when.

What’s more, is that we never truly see James for who he is. Like his bank-robbing associates, and even the family that he tries to cultivate, we are denied access to his true self, instead left to watch an unknowable man try to come to terms with his own anonymity. This is aided by the film’s haunting, omnipresent narration:

‘Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to.’

A man emerges who is larger than life – and yet at the same time practically unknown. This is not the Jesse James of American legend, laden with heroics and noble deeds, but rather a hollow figure; one beyond the normal realm of understanding, who is grappling with the knowledge that he is going to die. The only other person who sees through this is, ironically, the slated Ford: a man who, in an act of narrative foil, cannot help but slowly become the man he is destined to murder.

The result is a film that blurs the line between historical epic and psychological thriller, reflecting on the violence behind the fantasies that we have imposed on folk heroes, and the often disillusioned reality that remains. Nevertheless, this came at a cost: despite positive critical reviews and numerous awards nominations, the film’s production was constantly slated by its producers, and ended up only being set for a very limited release. Since then, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ has gone on to receive cult-like status – but this is reserved for those who have actually heard of it, as even with a star-studded cast and almost impeccable ratings, it still remains virtually unknown. It is, in almost every aspect of the phrase, a ‘hidden gem’.


© Copyright 2024 Cambridge Creatives

Site design by

Emily Shen