The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a difficult film to review. Usually this means one of two things: the film was mediocre and I find myself struggling to say something substantive about it, or I’m fascinated by it but I have not yet figured out how to unlock its mysteries. Usually the latter means I will love the film for its confounding, maddening tension and hate it for the same reason, at least until I see it again. Neither of those is the case for Andrew Dominik’s second film. I know exactly what I think of this film, and it is far from mediocre. The issue with this review is quite simple: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was all-but made for me. And gushing over something does not a review make, so I must try to formulate my jumping up and down into something coherent. Here we go.
And I’ve failed already: Good god is this film a looker. Photographed by long-time Coen Brothers companion Roger Deakins, likely the greatest mainstream cinematographer working today, the film isn’t something to watch. It’s something to cope with. Sweeping vistas anchor slowly, even statically, composed images of humans placed in position as if by an invisible hand, the film never ceasing to amaze with the precision of its imagery. More importantly, the film’s visuals are the window into the film’s soul: everything about Dominik’s impact narratively and structurally trickles down from his film’s eye-shattering, mythical cinematography. It is the film.
But the film is also much more than its visuals. Or rather, it is entirely its visuals, but its visuals do a whole lot more than sit around looking pretty for the camera. This is precisely because, in fact, it is the case that the humans in this film, and in every film to some extent or another, are “placed” in their position by an invisible hand. They are part of the visuals, and this film is well aware of this fact. Performance and fiction roll over the work – Assassination does not approximate reality but a boxed-off, distant painting as physically composed and formal as it is emotionally malleable. The general rule of thumb in making a film is to hide that it is a film you are making. Dominik and Deakins know this well, and they use this knowledge to positively eviscerate it.
Most Westerns are myth, of course, but we aren’t supposed to know that. Some Westerns, particularly revisionist ones, play around with this truth in an act of subversion, a realization of the very filmic construction of their own being and the lie of the Old West. They look to expose the myth as a lie by stripping it away, substituting their own reality in place of that lie. It is the rare beast that does the opposite: revealing the myth by subsuming itself to that myth and drawing it out as openly as it possibly can. The film to most fully submerse itself as myth gives itself away by its title…Once Upon a Time in the West, a storybook vision of the simple morals America tells itself at night of “better” times long past. It is a work that tries not to impose its own truth onto the Western, but to openly address that it and all Westerns are necessarily fictional. Rather than a nagging and limited attempt to find truth, it is an immanent critique of the idea of finding truth in the Old West. It says that the only truth is fiction, and that any Western definitionally cannot impose its own physical truth on the carnal beast that is the Wild West in the American imagination.
Which is the closest proximate to our current subject. Assassination is a film of conscious, composed myth-making. The images we see aren’t reality, nor do they aspire to be. Indoor shots are artful, with emphasis on composure and limited motion. When characters act, they stall and wait, and they remain still when we expect action and movement. It’s as if they are thinking, or perhaps waiting for their line. They seem at every moment in their spot not “just because”, but for a reason, as if they have no choice but to be there to fill out the myth. This is not a film of motion – it plays like a series of still images.
At the center of it all lies two things, or rather one thing pretending to be two: “Jesse James and Robert Ford”. I use “Jesse James and Robert Ford” as a singular because that is what they are. The film isn’t about two men but “two men” and their very twoness. Jesse (Brad Pitt in an intentionally distancing quiet-burn of a performance) is a Western anti-hero who fancies himself precisely as a myth. He lives to rob trains and kill men, not because it will grant him monetary rewards, but because it grants him his own mythicness. He wants to be remembered, and he knows, like any Western myth-in-the-making, that it is not only his life which will render him a myth, but his death. Enter Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a man who joins James’ gang for the same reason as James leads it: myth. He doesn’t want to be the myth though. He wants to worship it. He’s infatuated with Jesse and his relationship borders on obsession and even unstated sexual desire.
Robert is a coward, in that he doesn’t act on his desire, which of course, can’t become sexual in the world of crippling masculinity and must be played out through violence. So too is Jesse a coward as a man who uses other men to kill innocents, but the world he inhabits rewards this sort of cowardice with two things: death and the ensuing myth. As a man, he’s ill-tempered, abusive, and conflicted – no saint. But when he’s seen amidst the overpowering landscapes, it’s easy to see where he belongs: in history, and in storybooks, but not in real life. Thus, the film deconstructs him as a man, revealing him as a pitiful person rather than a noble outlaw, while rendering him infinitely powerful as a myth. In the process, it also says more than its fair share about what kind of men America mythologizes, and in being a myth and seeing the myth come to life, it deconstructs and critiques the act of myth-making.
When Robert does kill Jesse, when he finally does take “action” as a result of his anger, he cements his supposed cowardliness – he shoots Jesse in the back. But take a look at the scene and the way Jesse positions himself, or is positioned, in the perfect manner for Robert to shoot him in the back. We see that Jesse has gotten the only thing he wants. He has done the last thing he could do in a world he increasingly had no power over, a world leaving his petulant mass of flesh out to dry in changing times: massaged his death out of the man who would kill him, and rendered himself forever the myth who died a noble death at a coward’s hand.
All of this comes down to precisely one thing: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is that increasingly rare film where subject and style are in perfect unison. It’s a mythic film about mythic men and the centrality of the myth to the Old West, a land that only exists in myth and where people’s lives were empty to the point of having no meaning outside of the myths they created. It is also a film about the American male as a brittle, frail, cowardly figure struggling to make an identity for himself, to construct the positive image of “The American Male”, at the expense of a soul, or of a life lived. Nothing in the film seems open or free; everything seems locked into place, as though it has nowhere to go but into the American mythic lexicon. It is a film about humans trapped by myths, left with nothing to do and no way to actually live their lives with joy and excitement and purpose except to fulfill that deterministic myth. It is a film about a nation that privileges the myth of the rugged male to the point that men are driven to kill, and to be killed, for that myth, to ensure their identities in the storybooks will gloss over the questionable actions of their lived lives. It is a film about destroying your life and the lives of others so that you can have a life in the storybooks after you die. It is a film about America saving lives in the storybooks by making all other conceptions of life unlivable.