The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik, 2007)


A calm but menacing fog hovers over Andrew Dominik’s masterful Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, languishing in the small and intimate gaps of history with a hazy fondness for deception. Doubt filters over the familiarity of the James legend and past honorable incarnations, choosing a more studied and lyrical variation to fawn over. As the infamous Jesse James, Brad Pitt chews out lines and glances with a simple coarseness, often mixing in wary charm and instability for good measure. Through Dominik and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ cloudy view of old west mythology, James remains a distant analogy, a phantasm sorting out his own conflicting guilts and paranoia’s. As the other title character, the boyish but not sheepish Robert Ford, Casey Affleck turns what could have been a simple 1800’s Ripley into a richly layered regenerating chameleon of anguish, fear, and quivering intensity. Ironically, Ford and James don’t share much screen time, the film choosing instead to chart multiple overlapping stories of the James gang and their lengthy split. This widespread dynamic allows the film to slowly build toward the inevitable ending, relegating typical genre events for solemn character development and dream like landscapes. Dominik brilliantly spells out long, calculated conversations with these characters and uses a haunting mixture of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score and Deakins’ impressionistic images to create an unwavering experience transcending sublime reflection. As Jesse James and Robert Ford move toward their famous last meeting, the cliched aspects of the traditional western yarns melt away into the deep snowy forest mise-en-scene, crippling traditional codes of cowboy iconography along the way. Above all things, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford complicates themes of honor in the Western, showing a deep seeded deceit inherent in both the outlaws and the country as a whole. Underneath the six-guns, prostitutes, and bank robberies, the decay of expectation potently rots. During the devastating ending sequence and incredible Robert Ford-based epilogue, Dominik’s film dares to think that within America’s most celebrated and transparent genre, there might not have been any such honor in the first place, just the desire to be known.