I’m unsure if the “cowboy phase” is still a thing. Spacemen and dinosaurs are still hot right now (as far as I know), but even they are eclipsed by the myriad of gadgets available to kids these days. Also, I’m not sure if Cowboys and Indians really jives with the current views on political correctness.
Its popularity aside, the cowboy stage revolves around a select few bandits and outlaws. Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid, Billy the Kid – all these names belong to people who, though thoroughly rotten, are inexplicably represented as heroes.
This movie is about one such hero.
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is the sleepy, atmospheric story of, well, the assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford.
If you’re familiar at all with that story, you know that Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) is the man who laid old Jesse (Brad Pitt) low by shooting him in the back of the head in his own home for a hefty government reward.
But how could someone – a friend, no less – kill Jesse James? He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He was generous and charismatic and had a smile that could win you over in a second. To be sure, Robert Ford was a “slimy yellow sonofabitch,” as his contemporary parlance would put it.
Or was he?
“The Assassination” (yes, I know that’s already a movie, but “TAoJJbtCRF” doesn’t really work, and I’m not typing the title again) opens with a description of Jesse James. His children do not know him or what he does for a living, he does not regret his murders or robberies and he is 34.
At the film’s beginning, Jesse’s exploits have made him a nationally known figure and a hero to a young Robert Ford. Now, after 18 years of idolatry, Ford is trying to join the James Gang with the help of his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), who already has it in with the gang. To his excitement, Jesse lets him take part in his last heist, and even keeps him on afterwards.
However, all is not well between them.
Simply put, Robert is a bit of a weirdo. He’s the kind of guy who, had he been born today, would be found among the same people who visit Star Trek conventions every year, mouths frothing at the chance to add one more Shatner signature to to their collection.
He doesn’t just want to be pals with Jesse; he wants to be Jesse. Robert imagines himself to be just like him. He’s the youngest of his brothers; Jesse’s the youngest of his brothers. He has blue eyes; Jesse has blue eyes. The list goes on.
But the Jesse James in whose company Robert now finds himself is not the same man he is in the penny dreadfuls that Robert keeps by the boxful.
The real Jesse has a mean streak a mile wide. He’s selfish and paranoid and would kill anybody, even his closest friends, if he sensed even the possibility of treachery.
The transition between these two Jesses is interesting. At first you find yourself idolizing Jesse the way Robert does. Sure, we watch him almost kill a man out of spite, but, come on, he’s awesome. With every insult and cruelty that Jesse inflicts on Robert, we see his heart break – and our hearts break with his. It’s a sad thing to see someone disappointed in their hero, but a sadder thing still to see that someone treated with contempt still love the hero with all the devotion of a kicked puppy.
Jesse even makes sure to drop in from time to time to keep tabs on all his former gang members, enforcing his unspoken promise that if they step out of line he won’t hesitate to kill them.
But one day, enough is enough. Robert brokers a deal with the governor of Missouri: kill or capture Jesse James for a substantial reward and a pardon for you and your brother. Thus, the race begins. If Jesse finds out, he’ll kill Robert and everybody he loves.
Within a week, Jesse James is dead, shot in the back of the head while planning a robbery with Robert and Charley.
When I saw Jesse James sprawled out on the floor, I assumed the movie was over. Oddly enough, there were still 20 minutes left. Thus began the rather odd appendix to this little story.
Initially, the tale of Robert and Charley’s slow spiral into depression as they tour the nation giving reenactments of Jesse’s death may seem odd. The pacing may be a little off, but it’s a story that sorely needed telling.
The truth is, Robert Ford didn’t kill Jesse for the reward or to protect the citizens of Missouri. Robert Ford killed Jesse James because he was afraid of the retaliation by someone who lacked a shred of remorse.
But it’s hard to say whether the title of the film (and the story’s popular perception) is accurate. Yes, Robert Ford was afraid, but how could he not be? Jesse had already killed two members of the gang in his retirement because “he got a bad feeling,” and he was more than likely to come after the Ford brothers next.
And yet Robert hates himself. He hates himself for betraying the man, the man who would have killed him. He hates himself for killing his hero.
“The Assassination” is an odd, quiet film. It may even be about 30 minutes too long. Yet its story of hero worship gone wrong is compelling and well worth the watch.