What American doesn’t at least know the name Jesse James? Hero, thief, badass, murderer there are as many legends surrounding the man as there are opinions. However he was viewed by the public, one thing about Jesse which was indisputable was his fame. He has been the subject of innumerable fictions both during his lifetime and after, which helped generate distorted perceptions of his character. The film seeks to right things and show Jesse James as he really was.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford tells the story of the outlaw’s last days and the life of the man that shot him in the back. He is 34 years old, a family man who lives in the suburbs. Nothing about him says train robber or murderer to the casual observer. He is shown baking with his children or taking leisurely strolls through his neighborhood, the very model of a respectable citizen. Robert Ford is 19, socially awkward, and lives with his head in the clouds. He is shown to be the butt of his brother’s jokes and generally looked down upon by his family. He has a rather unsettling obsession with the James-Younger Gang, and a desire to advance his position in the world by any means necessary.
The film opens on the James Gang’s final robbery, a train job near Blue Cut, Missouri. By now the Younger brothers are all in prison and Jesse and his brother Frank must rely on local hicks for manpower. Robert Ford is among the new recruits. Robert actively seeks out the James brothers and is rebuffed by Frank, but welcomed by Jesse. After the robbery, which yields much less than Jesse expected, Robert is allowed to stay in the outlaw’s house, but only to help Jesse move house. There, he meets a few more of Jesse’s associates, including the womanizing Dick Liddil and Jesse’s arrogant cousin Wood Hite. As the association deepens between the Fords and the Jameses Robert begins to understand what kind of man Jesse really is. Jesse has been made paranoid by his long years as a criminal and suspects that members of his gang might be trying to turn him into the authorities for a bounty.
The Fords managed to avoid any suspicion of this until Jesse’s cousin Wood attacks Dick Liddil, who is staying with them, for sleeping with his stepmother. Robert Ford shoots Wood and the Fords hide his body in a ditch on their property. Figuring it is only a matter of time before Jesse puts two and two together and kills every last one of them to avenge his cousin’s death, the Ford brothers decide to take the state up on their offer of a bounty for Jesse’s capture.
From a cinematographic standpoint, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is probably one of the best shot films of the 2000’s. Long takes are used to show the passage of time and to emphasize the tranquility of the natural setting in direct contrast with the slow-building tension between the characters. Even action scenes are filmed with long takes, eschewing the rapid cuts that films like The Wild Bunch helped to popularize. The pacing of the film is deliberately slow, and events in the plot are presented in an episodic, slice-of-life manner. A narrator is used, generally to provide background information. The narrator’s utility lies in that he grounds the audience in the facts of the situation, reflecting the overall goal of the film: to show the real Jesse James. Also notable is the extensive use of chiaroscuro in its night scenes while daytime scenes use a mixture of harsh sunlight and a restricted pallet to produce a washed-out look, echoing old photographs.
The overall tone of the film is melancholic, with moments of levity mostly supplied by the sometimes witty dialogue of its principle characters. There are also brief instances of black comedy such as the inept shoot-out between Dick Liddil and Wood Hite, where they miss every shot they take despite being only about three feet away from each other. But the centerpiece of the film is its study of the title characters. As we get to know Jesse James and Robert Ford better out disposition towards them becomes a mixture of pity, sympathy, disgust and horror. Jesse in particular is revealed quickly as a psychotic bully whose mean temper leads him to cruelly beat a recalcitrant railroad official within an inch of his life and later torture a teenage boy for information on the whereabouts of a gang member he suspects of plotting against him. However, he is humanized by his clear love for his family and is worn so thin by his paranoia and fear that he’s just a shell of man. Robert fidgets his way through most of his early scenes and any attempt he makes to assert himself is dismissed. Everything from his shyness to his reliance of fantasy to his desire for greatness speaks of a deep-seated self-hatred, and all of his mannerisms seem slightly off. He is capable of being quite cold-blooded, a sterling example being when he calmly shoots Wood Hite through the head.
In terms of celebrity, Jesse is a man trapped by his own legend while Robert is an obsessive fan who cannot see Jesse clearly at first. When he finally does, he sees the real Jesse James cannot live up to his legend. When Robert finally kills Jesse out of fear and resentment he briefly becomes a legend himself, but the nation’s love of Jesse James warps Robert’s public Image into conniving back-shooter. Robert is ultimately destroyed after a lifetime of humiliation in a similar manner to Jesse, shot in the back by a deranged loner with a hatred of Robert’s legend. In many ways Robert is a stand in for the American public (and by extension, the audience), we are right beside him as Jesse’s legend is torn down. Unlike Diva, when what is beneath the publicity is revealed the fan can find nothing to love. Understanding is still reached in this case, but to understand a career criminal like Jesse James is to fear him.