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

Casey Affleck presented a screening of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford at the Brattle Theatre in Boston last night, on hand for a Q&A following the film. Though Assassination is still sadly much more of an “obscure” offering – at least in terms of films starring Brad Pitt – it nonetheless remains a fascinating character study of both a young man and his mythical idol.

Robert Ford joins the James Gang alongside his brother Charlie at a time when Jesse James has already achieved infamy through his brazen robberies and brutal murders. Bob is only nineteen years old at this point (although he “feels older”), and his fascination with the gang is a mixture of childish wonder, starstruck glee, and perhaps a hint of inflated self-importance. He believes he’s destined for “great things”, by which he really means he believes himself to be a worthy follower of Jesse or even one who could take his place. As his place in the gang is solidified over the course of the film and his presence at Jesse’s side becomes more and more common, Bob’s perception of his onetime hero begins to deteriorate.

Director Andrew Dominik is largely responsible for the fantastic pacing and moody tone of Assassination, and his casting of the lead and supporting roles is phenomenal as well. There is a scene near the beginning where Bob approaches Jesse’s brother Frank, played by Sam Shepard, in order to submit his opinion on his own worthiness to be a “sidekick” to the James Brothers. “You ain’t got the ingredients,” Frank tells Bob – and Bob, just as he opens his mouth to respond, is bit by a bug on his neck. He swats at himself and looks at his hand, and the bloody dead insect is shown for a split-second before Bob wipes it in the grass and turns back to Frank. Moments like this defy explanation on one hand and demand it on the other, and these seemingly “throwaway” bits serve to heighten our awareness of Bob’s character. Maybe there’s nothing to read into that bug, but it does conveniently occur just as Bob is about to assert his own worth as a man of Jesse James’s caliber – an assertion which ends up being a main theme of the film. Dominik’s eye for this kind of stuff extends into his next feature, 2012’s Killing Them Softly, which reunites a few of the cast members from Assassination.

Casey Affleck talks Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - November 2014
Casey Affleck talks Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – November 2014

Affleck’s Q&A was heavily centered on Bob’s character, and specifically on the sympathy we may or may not have for the fledgeling gangster. By the end of the film, Bob has shot Jesse James and then recreated the shooting several hundred times onstage in New York City as a moneymaking scheme before being shot to death himself. Great emphasis is placed in this conclusion on the differences between Jesse’s death – photographed and sold in shops all over America, talked about, remembered – and Bob’s death – simply unadorned and forgotten within a few days. This is a stark contrast to some other portions of the film, which serve to do the opposite in emphasizing the similarities between the two men. Affleck himself shunned readings of Bob as a deranged “high-school shooter” or an otherwise unsympathetic figure, instead finding the youth and wonder and ultimate regret of Bob Ford to be almost entirely relatable under the circumstances.

The screening and subsequent comments from Affleck were most important as efforts to increase the exposure of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Perhaps the long runtime or the unconventional structure served to turn audiences off from the film upon the initial release, or perhaps it should be attributed to the fact that 2007 also held two other intense neo-Westerns of arguably higher caliber in There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. Whatever the reason, Assassination is still a masterful exploration of fame framed by the fascinating relationship between two endlessly complicated men.

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