Western Week: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Over the course of this week, I'll be looking at five Westerns from the past 20 years, a particularly fascinating period in a genre that has long since left its glory days, but continues to produce some gems.

"Don't that picture look dusty."

"Don't that picture look dusty."

Adapted from: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen

Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell

Written and Directed by: Andrew Dominik

Outlaws have long held a fascination throughout our cultural history from the exploits of Robin Hood through the big names of the Old West and into the modern era of characters like Howard Marks or even Edward Snowden. There's something alluring about men (and women when they occasionally pop up) operating outside of the law and it's not hard to understand why. They become legends. The 19th century, after the Civil War, American legends were born of such characters, their infamy buoyed by the rising press industry across the country and a population enthralled and appalled by their antics in equal measure. The likes of Billy the Kid; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; and the James-Younger gang have all continued to capture the imagination during their time in the spotlight and beyond. 

Because all we do is tell the same stories over and over again, like the newspapers publishing accounts of the James gang robberies, Bob retelling them to anyone who will listen and Jesse telling his stories. We find the subjects fascinating and swoon at their heroism or gasp at their villainy. We rewrite them ourselves, recasting the characters in our fantasies. Ron Hansen is conducting his own retelling, drawing on those historical accounts in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Andrew Dominik is then telling his own, visual version of the story. And what are both Hansen and Dominik doing? Drawing allusions to other stories, other experiences, relating anecdotes and tall tales. Storytelling is woven into the very fabric of the novel and the film, but there is, at all times, the question of who is in control of the narrative. It may appear as if it revolves around Jesse, but there is only ever one person in control of the Jesse James legend, and that's the man himself. . 

The ideas of legend and fame run throughout Hansen's novel. The western world is dominated now by the idea of celebrity, an idea that has become increasingly intrinsic to its culture (think of the Kardashians, for example; they may not be outlaws, but they're running a damn good PR campaign). And with celebrities come their adoring followers. Bob Ford is a proto-fanboy, gathering as much information as he can about his hero, collecting memorabilia and obsessing over his every move. Bullied and mocked by his brother and Jesse's gang, Bob's anger builds along with his desire to be famous in his own right and achieve the kind of notoriety that the James brothers have courted. Jesse has Bob pegged early: "Can't figure it out. You want to be like me? Or do you want to be me?"

Hansen constructs his tale from the writings of the time, primarily retooling newspaper articles, then historical sources and anecdotal evidence from the descendants of families and eyewitnesses. It uses the story of Jesse James to stunning effect, exploring the myth-making that surrounded him (Hansen in turn creating his own), the gritty reality of life as a violent criminal and the way in which James was entirely complicit in both. He's a man of many masks that he uses to his advantage. In contrast, Bob Ford is a man of a rigid, disquieting personality, desperate to be loved in the same way as Jesse, but unable to understand why he never will be. The power of celebrity and its corrupting influence is at the heart of their relationship and it is eventually acknowledged by Bob as a driving reason behind his desire to kill Jesse. He wanted to be applauded.

Dominik's adaptation recognises the power of Hansen's prose, utilising it for the narration that punctuates the film, not only conveying information regarding the ongoing plot, but also to build into the theme of myth-making. During certain shots of the landscape or characters that are overlaid with the narration, cinematographer Roger Deakins employed older, wide-angle lenses, blurring the edges of the shot and giving it the appearance of an old photograph. Using this in tandem with the narration becomes a visual representation of both the virtues and limits of storytelling; the audience will never see the full picture here, merely what the storyteller wishes you to see.

Jesse James is a storyteller. Throughout the novel and the film, he is ready with an anecdote about his experiences that contribute to his reputation and the public perception of him. In effect, he handles his own public relations campaign to keep up his Robin Hood image. In the novel, this is through the letters he writes to newspapers reporting on his deeds or ensuring that there are witnesses to testify that he refuses to shoot and old Army veteran. The stories spread, the legend builds. It helps that, as a central performance, Brad Pitt's James is dynamic and charming, sinister and enigmatic, everything that a man creating his own reputation needs to be. The meta quality of casting a star like Pitt certainly aids this, an actor no stranger to having his life pored over by a clamouring, information-hungry world. 

The dinner at the Fords' house, at which Jesse is a guest, is a conversation of various anecdotes and marks the beginning of Bob's resentment towards his hero by relating the experiences of the two different men. Dominik holds the scene to an uncomfortable length and frames it as a sparring battle between the two. Bob makes one last attempt to ingratiate himself with his boyhood hero, but Jesse responds with a story about a man who once tried to kill him, comparing him to Bob in a moment that feels like both a warning and a challenge. As a result, Jesse's lustre starts to wane in Bob's eyes and Jesse has sewn the seeds for his own downfall, pushing his eventual assassin every step of the way from this point on.

Even in death, the implication is that Jesse is controlling his own story, mounting the tension to near-unbearable levels before Bob finally pulls the trigger. Much is made, by Hansen and Dominik, of the fact that Jesse is never seen without his gun belt and in the scenes leading up to his death, he makes it very clear that he knows exactly what the Fords have been planning. Dominik gives Jesse that moment of control, seeing Bob pull his gun in the reflection of the picture. However, Bob is simply not as adept as Jesse as cultivating the sudden infamy he achieves as a result of killing one of the most infamous outlaws in history. 

Bob Ford learns the hard way that fame is ephemeral and stories often spin out of control in the telling of them. The public tide quickly turns against him. His Broadway performances are heckled with shouts of "coward" and "murderer," whilst songs written about the killing are sung in bars across the country (seen as a cameo from the film's composer, Nick Cave). The scene in which he confronts the balladeer is taken from the book and there, it is followed by a paragraph on how Robert Ford is regarded: "arrogant, dangerous, pigheaded, savage, with no redeeming qualities beyond a capacity for liquor and a scary gift in handling guns." He, like Jesse, attempts to redeem that image by carrying out generous and benevolent deeds, but "the accounts were forgotten in favor of disparaging tales that seemed more fitting."

The film pares down the slow, guilt-ridden demise of Bob from Hansen's lengthier post-assassination story, but it is just as effective and aided by the sudden still quality that Casey Affleck brings instead of the fidgety movement that Bob previously exhibited. It's a sad coda to a life lived in the shadow of a more famous man who continues to hog the spotlight after his death. Jesse's body is photographed and the images sold across the country, pilgrims would come to see his ice-packed corpse and his home and belongings are auctioned off to anyone who cares for a bit of memorabilia. In contrast, as the narration illustrates, Jesse James' killer is simply forgotten: "There would be no eulogies for Bob." 

What Bob Ford never realised was that he was not the character of his own tale. That is his ultimate tragedy; the moment he seizes the narrative and kills off Jesse James to make his own legend, he instead becomes the villain of someone else's.