Following the release of The Lone Ranger, and the subsequent drubbing it’s received from critics and moviegoers alike, I decided to revisit another more recent western that did happen to fair well with the critics (although it didn’t do to well financially). The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Ford (hereby referred to as AOJJ) is an epic, long in both title and length of time. So well received was AOJJ that many now consider it as one of the best westerns ever made. More importantly, AOJJ is an excellent case of celebrity and paranoia.
AOJJ follows Jesse James, and his gang, in the last years of his life as well as Robert Ford’s continuous attempts to gain Jesse James’admiration. As Jesse, and his brother Frank, plan one last train robbery before giving up crime, Robert “Bob” tries his best to join the gang on their last heist job. Bob doesn’t make the gang, but he is able to talk Jesse into letting him stay around afterwards, leading him to obsessively observe Jesse’s every move and mannerism. Bob, however, is eventually dismissed, prompting him to return home to where his brother, Charley, along with other members of the gang are staying. Bob’s brother finds a box of Jesse James memorabilia, included articles and artifacts about the outlaws’ life, under Bob’s bed, leading Charley and others to ridicule him relentlessly throughout the film. Bob, we learn, has been obsessed with Jesse James since he was a boy, leading to an infatuation that grows still. Meanwhile, Jesse’s paranoia also grows, causing him to kill anyone, including fellow gang members, if they act in any way suspicious. So paranoid is Jesse, that he takes on Bob and Charley as protection, causing Bob to long for attention and recognition from Jesse. Unfortunately, it all unravels, with Jesse giving in to his paranoia, and Bob making a deal that will bring him the attention and respect he never earned from Jesse.
After buying the rights to the novel, Warner Bros. and Plan B Entertainment (Brad Pitt’s production company) hired Andrew Dominik to direct. While having only previously directed one other film (the equally well received Chopper), Dominik shows the skill of a master who has spent years working at his craft. Taking a page from Terrance Malick, Dominik constructs a minimalistic film comprising of magnificent shots interwoven with naturalistic performances and voiceover narration. So convincing are the performances that many times it feels as if you are experiencing history before your very eyes. Brad Pitt’s paranoia seems real, allowing you to feel the burden laid upon him with the thought that any moment could be his last. Casey Affleck is equally convincing as a socially awkward Robert Ford, who’s longing for acceptance from his peers, and especially Jesse James, as well as his desire for attention is equally heartbreaking and disturbing to watch. Another standout performance is that of Sam Rockwell, who plays Bob’s brother Charley. His naive and simple-minded demeanor is appealing, but as the film progresses, along with the secrets that build, the guilt and fear he conveys is so potent that it feels as if he’s actually living out his role. It’s not only the performances that are mesmerizing; AOJJ displays some of the most poetic cinematography in quite some time. Lensed by Roger Deakins, who works regularly with the Coen Brothers, AOJJ utilizes a technique (that Deakins claims to have developed) that creates a soft blurring around the frame, perhaps to capture the look of old photographs and film. The film’s palette mimics the tone of the film: bleak and somber, with touches of color throughout. It’s no wonder the film was nominated for an Oscar for cinematography; it’s a shame it didn’t win.
AOJJ is an interesting film in that the themes explored throughout seem more pertinent today than in the 19th century setting in which the story takes place. In a world where every celebrity’s move is tweeted, photographed, and blogged about, as well as a post 9/11 society where paranoia runs rampart, it’s interesting to see these themes in an earlier setting. Viewed as an American Robin Hood, Jesse James and his gang came to represent social banditry, rising up against the corporations in defense of the poor and helpless. Even for all the violence and chaos he caused, James was seen as a hero to many. His celebrity status, however, meant that he was widely recognized, leading to the paranoia he exhibited later in life. Thus celebrity has a price, which is evident more so today than it ever was during Jesse James’ life.
AOJJ is an excellent study of human nature- the desire for attention, acceptance, how fear and paranoia control us, as well as the pitfalls of celebrity. As the western genre unfortunately disappears, it’s refreshing to see an excellent example of what the genre can offer.