Written by cellardoor
You may not be familiar with the story of Jesse James, the legendary American outlaw, but certainly you don’t need to know who he was in order to appreciate the beauty of ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’.
The movie apart from having a particularly long title, has another rather bizarre peculiarity; it reveals one of the most significant turning points of the film- one of the main characters is assassinated by the other main character. We immediately realize that the assassination is not what matters – what really matters then, is the motive behind this particular assassination.
His motive is gradually unraveled but is never really put into words. Instead, the film is gracefully embellished with a beautiful cinematography, an electrifying soundtrack and of scenes that are generally stripped of unnecessary dialogue. The emphasis is put on the image, an image that alternates between nature and man. It seems that this identification with nature indicates the duality of man’s morality; one can never be either good or bad entirely. Even a criminal like Jesse James can be seen as good.
Robert Ford is one of the youngest members of Jesse’s gang. Regardless of real statements revealing that Bob was actually among Jesse’s most trusted men, in the film it becomes clear that Andrew Dominik purposefully creates an atmosphere of mistrust between the two men. Bob literally becomes Jesse’s shadow; drowned in his idolization, he tries to actually become the notorious gang leader.
Scene by scene we become witnesses of the deconstruction of a legend. We see through Bob’s eyes how the veil of unreality is step by step lifted and by the end violently torn. The act of killing Jesse James is the act of killing a false legend; to him, Jesse is a dishonest man because he doesn’t live up to the role that the dime novels of his era had constructed for him.
By murdering Jesse James, Robert Ford hopes to acquire the fame and respect that usually accompanies a hero. To him it’s quite obvious that he just killed a false idol, but America doesn’t think the same. Murdering a living legend is like murdering what America represents- besides, legends are made and perpetuated exactly because they reflect society itself.
Rather than getting what he anticipated, Bob becomes the dishonest man, the coward that killed the hero. The idea of heroism is thus questioned and distorted, as the faded corners of the camera in some scenes might indicate.
Reality is blurred, the idea of the true self is questioned and all becomes a performance. Bob finds himself reenacting again and again the murder he committed through a theatrical play called ‘How I Killed Jesse James’, forever caught up in a never ending vicious circle of killing and betrayal. Although in Bob’s point of view Jesse betrayed him because ‘he was just a human being’ and not a legend, towards the end of the film we see Bob questioning his actions and his true self as well. Who is Robert Ford and Jesse James in the end? Who is the coward and who’s the hero? In the end, however, it’s probably society that decides.