The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
In Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, legendary outlaw Jesse James is shown in the twilight of his illustrious career, just a few hours before his last great train robbery up to his death. Dominik strives to humanize the myth, by focusing on James in his weakest, in his most flawed, merely surviving in the least heroic of moments. Nowhere in the film do we witness James' so-called heroism or charisma, as delightfully , described in the song of the troubadour near the end of the film or displayed in the countless serials that are stashed inside the wooden chest of his greatest follower and shamed killer Robert Ford, portrayed with surprising skill and subtlety by Casey Affleck. It is only when an icon is stripped of the extraneous tales and titles, even to the point of countering the reputation that was created over the decades, do we really understand the human being. Here, we witness a legendary man that is at once monstrous yet pitiful, repulsive yet endearing, defensive yet vulnerable.
It is only natural for Dominik to accompany this newfound human vulnerability in Jesse James' persona with the vastest of wide open spaces, sumptuously photographed by Roger Deakins. Deakins' work here is sublime. While the cinematography is undoubtedly extravagant with almost every frame of the film both precise and arrestingly beautiful, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford never succumbs to being too alluring to the point of such aesthetics overpowering the film. Despite its untypical storytelling, the film is still subservient to the glorification of the West, with its dutiful over-dramatization of the events from the shadowed train robbery to the sunlit moment of James' actual assassination, and the persistent observation of the common virtues and vices of the Western genre, such as honor and treachery respectively.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford also positions the death of the legendary outlaw as the end of the great West, similar in the way Sam Peckinpah lamented the passing of the Old West upon the death of Billy the Kid in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Observe the differences between the film pre and post-assassination. Previous to James' death, the West was obviously on the verge of a rebirth, probably reactionary to the ceasing of the James gang's crimes, but still adhering to the principles that marked the Old West like camaraderie and honor even under the guise of criminality. After James' death, the film suddenly zooms into the tortured state of the Ford brothers, more specifically to Robert whose role in the film emerges from cowardly villain to pitiful, possibly even admirable, victim of history. The audience in turn focus its sympathies from the very mortal James on the verge of his impending death to Ford who is unfairly turned into the tool for James' ascension to immortality, disregarding whatever virtue or vice each represented previous to James' death in respect to the overall humanity of the two historic figures. It is this muddling of these personalities' supposedly clearcut roles that spell out the end of the Old West and its distinctly defined heroes and villains.
In this regard, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is somewhat akin to Terrence Malick's The New World (2005) where nature, the artificial environs, and the overall atmosphere cohere with the narrative to elucidate the director's purpose. In The New World, Malick retells the story of Pocahontas, not through the eyes of a disconnected third person (as let's say the countless storybook versions like the animated Pocahontas (1995) from the Mickey Mouse factory) but from a perspective, carefully recreated through extensive research and a very personal aesthetic motif, that perfectly captures the exhilarating sense of discovery, pain, romance and enchantment that the Native American princess must have herself experienced. Malick was able to convert experiences that would have been impossible to relay ordinarily in either literature or film such as the discovery of a New World or the wonderment over the modernity of 17th century London, furthering the exploration of the fascinating gap of the natural world of the Native Americans and the similarly mystifying world of the West all through the eyes of Pocahontas.
In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the story is not told through the perspectives of any of the characters. Instead, an unseen narrator assists the storytelling, complete with the ornate verbosity of an important literary work since the narration was adapted verbatim from Ron Hansen's novel. While the perspective in the film is distant from the portrayed characters, there is no sense of estrangement or traditional cinematic disconnect from the narrative and the cinematic style. The narrator serves both as objective guide and referee to James' famous celebrity and Ford's infamous cowardice. The narrator dictates facts which are probably unknown to the characters like scientific or medical explanations, historic reputations, or future and past events that might or might not matter. With such perspective, the audience gains a godlike stance in the ongoings, completely knowledgeable of the facts and able to fathom the depth of the characters and their respective motivations. With such perspective, Dominik was able to convincingly tackle the fallibility of a legendary outlaw and the humanity of a degraded upstart even under the midst of an overly romanticized setting.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a quiet and masterfully crafted film that in a larger scale, explores the refined nuances of fame and infamy, as represented by opposing characters, Jesse James and Robert Ford. Individually, these characters have conflicts to wrestle with. James has his unacceptable mortality to deal with, leading to an even more crazed disposition with paranoia eating him up until he finally gives up, and allows an upstart to take his life in exchange for historic and literary immortality. Ford, on the other hand, we see grow up, become broken by the realization of his hero as the impertinent fraud, and in the end, commit a sin he would carry as burden for the rest of his life. They're humans all --- vulnerable, imperfect, and wretched. Against the ravishing vistas and the shadow-draped interiors of the admirable Old West that is coming to a close, these characters can't do anything but go along, unmask and step out of the stereotypes that are so conveniently crafted for them.