Betsy Cass considers the elusive classification of Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Sometimes, when you’re struggling to pin down exactly what something is, the easiest method is to list all the things it’s not. I used to think I had a pretty good handle on what type of movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was, but now it seems strangely elusive. First and foremost, I had always been sure the movie was a Western. It was released in the midst of the great modern Western boom, a few weeks after the remake of 3:10 to Yuma (which had been surprisingly well received) and practically right alongside both No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood. These were always the films I compared it to, quite favorably as it turns out, even though in retrospect neither of the latter two were strictly traditional Westerns either (which was, I suppose, sort of the point of this whole neo-Western renaissance we found ourselves in back in 2007). But it turns out Jesse James is especially not a Western.
The film is seemingly uninterested in wrestling with either the morals of the world, or even its characters. No person is truly good or bad. No act is valiant or despicable. Instead, James (the ostensible, but not actual, lead) is beset by a lingering weltschmerz, and his killer is confused and hurt and lonely, but never really villainous. You have to admit that’s pretty odd for a film about an assassination. Yet the movie makes little judgement about Robert Ford’s actions, instead choosing to coolly observe them with quiet cinematography and a soothing, novelistic, omniscient voice over. An epilogue of sorts focuses on outcry over his deeds (again, coolly) but is sure to emphasize Ford’s regret, not because he felt his actions dishonorable, but because he misses his friend.
Nor is the film a rumination by a foreigner on deeply American themes. Some of the most iconic films on the American experience have been directed by outsiders, but Australian Andrew Dominik, who also adapted the screenplay, chooses to steer clear of those concerns (which he would end up tackling head-on in his next film and second Pitt collaboration Killing Them Softly). The American Western has a long and deep history of reverence by Australians (including from Dominik’s musical collaborator on this film Nick Cave, who scripted meat-pie Western The Proposition), but along with avoiding Western themes, the script only glances over the context and supposed motivation of James’s crimes. There is as much emotional resonance to his post-Civil War crusade as there would be to what he eats for breakfast. It is historically, but not narratively, necessary.
The film was considered a stylistic shift for Dominik, whose only previous feature was the much more confrontational Chopper. Lensed by Roger Deakins (who interestingly also DP’d No Country for Old Men), James was praised for its Malickian qualities, especially its still and subtle field scenes and a breathtaking nighttime train robbery. But it’s clear that many of the choices made here stand to undermine the awe. I had not remembered the extreme flair-styled vignetting, which lends a fantastical quality to the film, strangely in line with the dispassionate narration. There is a flatness to the photography, too. Sometimes in virtual sepia, almost always with an exaggerated contrast that lends a richness to Jesse’s hair but paints the actors as pale and sickly, almost vampiric. The palette seems to say there’s something unreal about the film’s proceedings, again peculiar for events that actually occurred. It gives it a sense of age, like a faded daguerreotype, yet without tumbling into parody. Nor is it painterly in a way that would evoke John Ford or Sergio Leone. Instead, it conjures a more destitute mood, maybe something Terrence Malick would have put on screen if he were far more cynical.
Finally, the film is not a showcase for star Brad Pitt, as it was heavily sold to be. While he does interesting work here mostly in the quietest moment, the film belongs fully to Casey Affleck, who had been producing wonderful supporting work going all the way back to 1995’s To Die For, but had never had a leading role that showed his prodigious skill. He has seldom returned to supporting roles since his Oscar-nominated turn here. In fact, the role helped define him so that the Boston native led two more period Western pieces within the next five years. Here Affleck does the type of work that often doesn’t get done in American films, making his brush strokes so small that the audience wants to lean closer to see. Instead of projecting himself outward, he is drawing you in. Every scene is a beautiful accumulation of tiny moments in which he magnetically exploits the intimacy of the camera to make monuments out of minuscule gestures. In many ways, we have become accustomed to a certain flattening of screen acting: performers stand stock still and speak perfectly, no head bobbles or blinks or slips of the tongue. Affleck here is nervous and fumbling and odd, but also viscerally honest. His voice cracks, he fidgets, he can’t hold eye contact. He inhabits the character’s youth and inexperience and bravado with keen compassion. And if all this seems like somehow too much, too performative, it isn’t. His work grates against the frequently grandiloquent urges of cinema, instead a perfect capitalization on how confined we are with Robert Ford. Affleck makes him thoroughly discomfiting, but understandable, drawing out a strained empathy for the emotionally unmoored misfit whose affections go beyond admiration.
So if the film is not a Western, not a commentary on America, not a showcase for its director or cinematographer or star, then what is it? I’m honestly not sure I have the succinct words to say. At the time it was released, I was too busy comparing it to its immediate contemporaries to really understand what was at its heart. But as I consider it today, it reminds me greatly of two films that might on the surface seem quite distant from it: The Talented Mr. Ripley and Les Bonnes Femmes. The latter happens to be one of my favorite films, which I would have seen for the first time only a few months after Jesse James. Both are works that show surprising compassion for being an outsider, insight into loneliness and envy, and the unlikely concord between a victim and their malefactor. They are both works that can be as equally distressing as enthralling, unflinchingly rigorous in their depictions of our most unshakeable and disturbing desires.
Dominik doesn’t push the emotions of his work as far as either of those two films, but plays another interesting trick instead. While his next two features would be a work of extreme cynicism (the aforementioned Killing Them Softly) followed by a work of extreme compassion (cinematic documentary One More Time with Feeling, with James musical collaborator Cave), Dominik manages to effectively explore both sentiments here, marrying them in the consumptive relationship between James and Ford them until they are indistinguishable. It’s not a matter of shifting allegiances. Rather both instincts are present always, layered inextricably upon one another to create an echo chamber of sadness. So when everything plays out both as is expected and deserved, it castrates the ability to feel narrative satisfaction. It’s a piece driven by fatalism, foretold in history, novelized and retold, where even the characters seem to know the endgame from the off. While the wrapper may suggest something else, at its heart the film is ultimately a meditation on alienation and weariness, so universal it could take place on the frayed edges of postbellum America and so close to home it had to.