Andrew Dominik’s second film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is the masculine version of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s classic chronicle of bitches on Broadway—All About Eve (1950). While All About Eve depicts the rocky relationship between an aging Broadway star (Bette Davis) and her loving admirer turned usurper (Anne Baxter), Jesse James focuses on the similar relationship that existed between the aging Wild West outlaw (Brad Pitt) and his admirer (one might even call Robert Ford a stalker) turned assassin (Casey Affleck). Yet, despite the change in gender and milieu, the primary focus of both films is how a desire and obsession for fame is ultimately self-destructive.
Jesse James begins with the James’ Gang’s last railroad robbery in the autumn of 1881. Brought onto the job by his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), the nineteen-year-old Robert Ford has been obsessed with Jesse since he was a child. Over the years, Robert has produced his own portrait of Jesse—aided by news clippings, picture books,and folk tales—that paints the outlaw as an American Robin Hood armed with a six-shooter instead of a bow.
Yet screenwriter and director Dominik quickly undercuts the usefulness of first impressions. Jesse’s brother Frank (Sam Shepard) sees right through Robert’s doe-eyed affection, telling him “I don’t know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies.” Robert, on the other hand, discovers that while Jesse may be charismatic, he is also a violent and paranoid sociopath. For instance, when Jesse learns that some of his fellow gang members are thinking about turning on him in exchange for immunity and a large bounty, he tortures Robert’s young cousin for information that the boy never had to begin with.
The mixture of Robert’s obsession turned to disillusionment and Jesse’s illogical aggression slowly (over the course of two hours) transforms into a self-destructive brew, as Robert and Charley decide to betray Jesse and collect the bounty. Dominik’s film portrays Jesse as someone smart enough to see what’s going on but tired and crazy enough for it to happen. Jesse gives Robert a gun before removing his own, turns his back to dust off a photograph, and passively watches Robert pull the trigger. Robert’s motivation for the assassination is conflicted. He grows to loathe Jesse’s bullying and despises how little Jesse has in common with the mythos he has created. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Robert envies Jesse’s fame, craves it for himself, and thinks he can take it for himself if he puts a bullet in the back of Jesse’s head (needless to say, both performers play the hell out of these roles).
Initially, Ford’s assumption is correct. He travels the country with Charley, re-enacting the moment that he killed Jesse James. Yet, Jesse’s body, which is also making a tour around the country, draws greater crowds. Gradually, the audience that Jesse and Robert have come to share turn against the latter figure, dubbing him a coward and a traitor.
The Assassination of Jesse James is just as much about the death of Jesse as it is about the death of the West and all the cultural myths it has inspired. The film, through its title and the melancholy score composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, forecasts the inevitability of this transformation from the film’s opening moments. The film’s voice-over, quietly delivered by Hugh Ross, tells us of events before they happen. The end result of Dominik’s film is we are forced to realize that none of this is preventable and that the West, beautifully rendered through Roger Deakins’s cinematography (antique lenses were used to put a soft focus on the outer edges of the frame) is perhaps the greatest victim of the killer embodied by our cultural memory.