The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the best name for a western of any film in history. It’s the second half of the title that does it — the editorial moralizing, redolent of a 19th-century dime novel or monograph. The kind of thing that boys like young Bob Ford eagerly devoured in their beds at night as they dreamed of being daring and admired like Jesse James.
The title comes from the 1983 novel by Ron Hansen, and it’s almost a wonder that writer-director Andrew Dominik’s faithful, lyrical adaptation has been released with the splendid second half of its title in place, when studio marketing execs easily might have insisted on shortening it, the way Lt. Gen. Hal Moore’s book We Were Soldiers Once … And Young was rechristened We Were Soldiers for the screen.
Ford’s name has not been dropped from the film title, though it remains a footnote to the man he killed, as it was throughout his later years when he was known at all. James’ epitaph, composed by the outlaw’s mother, identifies Ford only as “a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here.” Ford’s own epitaph, whatever it says, has not been as well remembered.
In his boyhood, the story reveals, Ford was much struck by the similarities between himself and the celebrated outlaw: They were both the youngest son of a pastor, with various similarities in their family structures, of the same height and eye color, and so forth. Ford saw himself as cut from the same cloth as James, but James had the applause and the notoriety Ford wanted and never got. No young boys ever grew up wanting to be like Robert Ford.
“Many’s the night I’ve stayed up with my mouth open and my eyes jumping out, reading about your escapades,” Ford (an ingratiating Casey Affleck) confides eagerly to James (impassive Brad Pitt) as they sit smoking cigars after the opening train robbery — the last robbery James will ever commit.
James is silent a moment. “They’re all lies, you know,” he observes laconically.
Surprise, chagrin and affected nonchalance flicker across Ford’s face. If it were any other man saying those words, he would take umbrage — but he could hardly bear to be at odds with James, even if the latter weren’t the definitive authority on the subject. “Yeah. ’Course they are,” he manages reluctantly.
It’s a painful moment. Ford must choose between his loyalty to the fictionalized hero of his boyhood dreams and the flesh-and-blood man who is the reality behind the stories. He cannot reject the real man, for that would be to admit that the hero has no existence. Yet if he rejects the boyhood stories, can he still regard the real man as a hero?
Why was a murderer and robber such a celebrated figure in the first place? The story, which takes place after the heyday of the James Gang, offers no definitive answers. Certainly he had good press. “You’ll hear some fools say he’s getting back at Republicans and Union men,” scoffs the governor of Missouri, “but his victims have scarcely ever been selected with reference to their political views.”
What is clear is that James was a charismatic, forceful personality. Quick, decisive, possessing a flair for the dramatic, he was everything Ford wanted to be.
James was shot during Passion week of 1882. Given his legendary status and his pseudonymous existence (James was living at the time under the name Thomas Howard), it was inevitable that rumors would circulate that James hadn’t really died, although his death was dramatically well-documented and established.
If James was a quasi-messianic figure, Ford imagined himself first as the Johannine intimate; and, if he had to be a Judas figure, he would have wanted to be a grand one. Modern interpretations of Judas almost invariably portray him as intelligent, idealistic, complex — almost the ideal disciple, but for some tragic flaw, fate or misunderstanding. It may make for interesting drama, but reality is often more banal and straightforward.
Jesse James comes to theaters two weeks after another big-screen Western, 3:10 to Yuma, with which it shares a number of thematic similarities. Both films are about a protagonist who is overshadowed by a legendary bad man. The protagonist’s son in 3:10 to Yuma admires the bad guy, and even reads pulp adventures about him. The bad guy also has a sidekick who worships him.
Yet the two films couldn’t be more different. Where 3:10 to Yuma itself fell under the spell of its charismatic bad guy, essentially celebrating his manly prowess and freedom from restraint, Jesse James sees the legendary outlaw at a respectful distance. James is a bright but enigmatic cipher.
Stylistically, where 3:10 to Yuma is all pumped-up action, Jesse James is slow and thoughtful rather than suspenseful or exciting. It has earned comparisons to the films of Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The New World).
Dominick and cinematographer Roger Deakins create images of poetic beauty while avoiding much of the traditional iconography of the old West. The nighttime approach of the train at Blue Cut looks like the arrival of a UFO, with the beams from the locomotive lamp flashing between the trees.
James’ messianic legend is ironically evoked and debunked in a fleeting image in which James’ corpse rises, but not from the dead.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.
Content advisory: Several graphic shooting deaths; fleeting post-mortem nudity; torture of a child; obscene, sexually explicit dialogue; an offscreen adulterous encounter; at least one instance of profanity. Mature viewing; discretion strongly advised.