The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford
In Andrew Dominik
’s cinematic retelling of the most notorious betrayal in American history, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford
presents an intelligent, new depiction of the infamous outlaw Jesse James: Confused and vulnerable.
The story begins with a brief, narrated synopsis of James’ criminal and personal life, going into great detail about his family and the intimate quirks that make the supposed monster human. Soon after James and his gang of thieves are shown around camp in a sparse forest as they await a coming train. Amongst the gang is newcomer Bob Ford, younger brother of Charley Ford. Seeing James sitting alone by the fire Bob takes his chance to strike up a conversation with James. He does so successfully, although what follows is an awkward and childlike tête-à-tête between an idol and his adoring fan. The conversation would act as an imaginary passageway for Bob to dangerously enter the world of the known criminal. In this world he would walk with James step for step, come to know his wife and children, seemingly earn his trust and eventually destroy the very man he revered for so many years.
The film is based on the biographical novel of the same name, written by Ron Hansen
. Dominik's narrative structure is told primarily through the experiences of those surrounding James, rarely depicting moments that he spends in isolation save for his introduction during the opening minutes of the film. In doing this James becomes very mysterious to both the supporting cast and the viewers, making for a much more compelling relationship between Ford and James. Another key element used in the film is the inclusion of a third-person omniscient narrator. His voice is kind and factual, resulting in what seems like a detailed case study of the legendary criminal. This Discovery Channel like guidance through the picture is central for the filmmaker to skillfully remind the viewer that what they are seeing is in fact a film.
The film does not end following James' death, rather it proceeds to explain in grueling, vengeful detail the result and backlash towards Ford due to the death of America’s infamous bandit. What results from this decision is a better overall arc in the story as well as the character personality and superficialities of Ford. When the story begins he is timid and unsure of himself, yet at the time of the death he seems more confident in his actions, although uneasy. Ford knows exactly what it is he longs for: Fortune and fame, and to be known as “the man who killed Jesse James.”
The film had originally been edited by Dominik and presented a running time of nearly four hours, although due to the studio’s obvious request it was later re-cut down to two hours and forty minutes. Dominik had envisioned a Terrence Malick-esque picture with much drearier tones that offered the viewer “a dark, contemplative examination of fame and infamy” but the studios found it unnecessary and recommended Dominik a more action-filled edit, much like that of a Clint Eastwood western. Even with the film re-cut 160 minutes is a lengthy picture and could have easily been an extraneous experience had it not been organized in a well-paced manner. The final editing was a collaborative effort between Curtiss Clayton
and the highly acclaimed Dylan Tichenor
, whose work includes films such as Magnolia
, Brokeback Mountain
and most recently There Will Be Blood
The first act of the film plays out as a montage-like recollection of the beginning of Ford’s relationship with James and the end of the James brother’s original gang. Along with the beginning of the film the last act also presents itself as a montage of sorts, demonstrating the public scrutiny placed upon Ford for his heinous act and the remaining post-murder years of his life. It is in the heart of the film that the editing reveals the slow process of Bob’s confusing and childlike foundation of James’ trust and the joint decision to end it all with his brother Charley. Presented are many possibilities for the murder, yet Dominik does not claim one to be more truthful than another but rather allows many theories open for judgment. It could be have been rooted in fear, duty, jealousy, revenge, or pity.
The standout quality in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford
is without a doubt the cinematography. Nominated for an Academy Award for his efforts, Roger Deakins
creates a vast landscape that creates a quasi-utopia for the leading players to lose themselves. In one particular scene James and his gang approach a train just before their raid. The lights of the oncoming train and the shadows of the criminals are shown scrambling about through silhouetted trees. Steam blankets the forest ground. Suddenly, through the rising particles walks James’ silhouette. Building on the great legend he has created he walks through the steam like an unobtainable ghost with his bandanna-covered face as he totes two pistols under his weather-beaten trench coat. It really is the most memorable image in the picture.
Prior to the release of the film there had been much speculation and skepticism due to troubles with the editing and nearly two-year delay. Despite all the hassle that it took to release the film and all the footage that was left on the editing room floor, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford
is one of the best films of 2007 not only for its achievements in acting but for its aesthetic feats as well. It is a landmark picture for the western cinema genre.