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Film / The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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"I look at my red hands and my mean face. And I wonder about that man that's gone so wrong."
Jesse James

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a 2007 American Western film, and the second film directed by Andrew Dominik following Chopper. It is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Ron Hansen. The film, mostly set in 188182, depicts the final days of the notorious outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) as he descends into aimless ennui and murderous paranoia, as well as the rise and fall of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a sycophantic fanboy of James's desperate to make a name for himself.

The film is a Deconstruction of the James myth, as a man normally portrayed in Hollywood as a romantic Robin Hood-esque Anti-Hero is shown (much more accurately) as a cold, dangerous, paranoid, Ax-Crazy lunatic. Meanwhile, the normally-vilified Robert Ford starts off with an unsettling hero-worship towards James, but gradually becomes disillusioned with — and eventually terrified of — the infamous outlaw.

The supporting cast includes Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel, Garret Dillahunt, and Ted Levine. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (a long-time friend and collaborator of Cave's) provide the soundtrack, and Cave additionally appears in a minor role.

Despite being a massive critical hit, the film bombed at the box office, grossing almost exactly half its budget. It is long (2 hr 40 minnote ), scenes are intentionally drawn out, and it goes out of its way to debunk established popular Hollywood History, all of which ran against it. However, the film's music, cinematography, and especially the performances by the two leads are held in high regard (the cinematography and Affleck's supporting performance received Academy Award nominations), and it made several critical lists of the top 10 films of the year (sometimes even topping them).

This film provides examples of:

  • Alternative Character Interpretation: In-Universe. The film strongly implies that Jesse James realized that the Ford boys were about to kill him and willingly went to his death, apparently out of simple weariness from running from the law.
  • Ascended Fanboy: Bob was obsessed with Jesse James and ultimately gets to join his gang.
  • Anti-Hero: Robert Ford kills the famous outlaw, but he's hardly heroic in doing so.
  • Anti-Villain: Jesse is a robber, thug and murderer, but he's also something of a tortured soul. He's also confused for a hero by the public.
  • The Atoner: Jesse desperately wants to be this, but grimly acknowledges that it is impossible.
  • Being Evil Sucks: Jesse James might be an unstable bully, but he is clearly weighed down by the burden of his evil actions. It's implied that he allows the Ford brothers to kill him.
  • Berserk Button: Calling Robert a coward. Late in the film while reenacting the shooting on stage, someone in the audience calls him a coward twice, leading him to jump off the stage and start pummeling a man he suspects of being the culprit.
  • Broken Pedestal: Bob is heartbroken when his hero treats him like dirt just as everyone else has all his life. In the dinner scene especially, the shift from childlike admiration to deep-seated loathing is nicely conveyed by Casey Affleck.
  • The Cameo: Nick Cave as the musician in the saloon.
  • Camera Abuse: Before the train robbery scene, the train hits the camera and takes it along with it.
  • The Casanova: Dick Liddil, the smooth-talking, poetry-quoting outlaw who can and will charm any little lady who crosses his path. This becomes a real problem when he charms the wrong lady.
  • Cruel to Be Kind: Frank may have been a complete jerk to Bob when he met him, but it's clear he didn't want to see him fall into his life.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Jesse is given as much, if not more, attention while he's around as Robert Ford, but the story is ultimately Robert's. Some audiences were frustrated that the story continued a fair duration after Jesse's death.
  • Death Seeker: Jesse seems willingly grant the Ford boys the opportunity to shoot him.
  • Deconstruction: Of the Jesse James myth.
  • Delusions of Eloquence: Wood Hite tends to talk like this.
  • Demoted to Extra: Zooey Deschanel's character gives the impression that there was a lot more scenes with her that didn't make the final cut. The section of the film with her in it was originally supposed to be an hour longer.
  • Downer Ending: Robert kills Jesse, and suffers the scorn and hatred of the masses for the rest of his life, before being murdered himself. To add insult to injury, the killer was pardoned. Although historically karma would catch up to Edward O'Kelley when a policeman he tried to murder shot him in the struggle.
  • The Dreaded: Jesse. People become terrified just by being in the same room as him. Bob suggests to Dorothy that he killed Jesse out of fear.
  • Driven to Suicide: Charley. Jesse as well, depending on your interpretation.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: The public sees Bob as not just a coward but a traitor for killing Jesse.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Dick is appalled at Jesse violently assaulting a child.
  • Evil Laugh: Jesse James lets out a truly impressive cackle after threatening Robert Ford with a knife and then taunting him about it.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: A subversion. The aim of the movie is to contradict the bias that the title implies.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Robert Ford will kill Jesse James.
  • Gilligan Cut: A lawman warns Robert to never let Jesse get behind him. We then cut to Robert stocking shelves while Jesse walks up behind him and startles him.
  • The Gunslinger: Everyone is too afraid to test James's skill with a pistol. Whenever you're around him, you're at his mercy.
  • The Hero Dies: Both Jesse and Robert themselves at the end, as much as either can be said to be heroes.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Bob killed a notorious outlaw, but tries to pass himself off as a hero for it unsuccessfully, having been a boon companion of Jesse's previously.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade/Historical Villain Upgrade: Portrayed within the story, as the legend of Jesse James makes the unstable, murderous outlaw into a hero, while Robert Ford is quickly branded a "coward" and "assassin" for his murder. Like nearly every Jesse James story, his activities as a Confederate pro-slavery guerrilla gets elided, especially since it's focused on the latter half of his "career". Within the film itself, the governor disputes James' propaganda that his crimes target Republicans and supporters of the Union.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Despite there being no record of James and Ford to have ever been more than partners in crime, nor anything but heterosexual, the film as well as the book takes many liberties in how their relationship is explored. Robert's obsession and the admiration he shows Jesse throughout the first hour has a notable level of homoeroticism to it, ranging from him gushing about Jesse's looks via newspaper clippings he collects while smoking cigars with him to gazing longingly at Jesse while he bathes. Some of their interactions later on, despite being tainted with hostility after Robert's infatuation starts turning into resentment, still manage to offer queer readings with varying levels of sexual tension. Examples of dialogue include Jesse looking at Robert and telling him he's going to "break a lot of hearts", and the entirety of the fireplace scene, what would have happened if Charley hadn't walked in after Jesse asked Robert if he knows what it's like when you "know your girlfriend wants to be kissed even though she never said so" is anyone's guess.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Jesse just wants to have a simple life with his wife and kids, but he has been an outlaw for so long he simply doesn't know how. Exemplified by the fact that he has a normal life and alias he uses but never sticks to for long.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Bob desperately wishes he could be like Jesse and the gunslingers he grew up idolizing, yet is repeatedly reminded that he doesn't measure up to any of them.
  • I Just Want to Be You: Aspects of Robert's obsession can be summed up in one line from Jesse, "I can't figure it out; do you wanna be like me, or do you wanna be me?"
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Dick Liddil and Wood Hite's shoot-out is conducted in a cramped bedroom from about a six foot range, yet neither manage to land more than a single insignificant shot. The trope is immediately subverted by Robert Ford, whom we've never seen shoot a gun, when he lands a perfect headshot out of nowhere.
  • In the Back: How Jesse meets his end. The treacherous and cowardly nature of the killing helped sway public opinion to sympathize with Jesse over Bob.
  • Informed Attribute: The opening narration says that Jesse suffers from granulated eyelids, which make him blink more often than normal. This is accompanied by a lengthy shot of him staring unblinking into the horizon. Overall, he seems to blink less often than normal.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: When Bob hears "The Ballad of Jesse James" playing, Bob shoots the floor after the verse calling him a coward... and tells the musician that Jesse had two kids, not three.
  • Jerkass: Wood Hite and Charley for their merciless bullying of Bob. Jesse also qualifies.
  • Karmic Death: Wood is killed by the man whose toughness he had callously mocked earlier.
  • Misaimed Fandom: In-Universe. Jesse James receives this in his life, and it's amplified further after his death. In spite of being a thief and cold-blooded murderer, he's revered as a hero of the people.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: After brutally beating a twelve-year-old for information, Jesse breaks down and cries.
  • The Narrator: Providing historical context, internal emotions, and sympathy for both Jesse and Robert since 1882.
  • Nonindicative Name: Dick Liddil is actually quite a lady's man, though truth be told we never learn how well he satisfies his conquests.
  • Sad Clown: Charley affects a lighter personality, but is even more weighed down by his conscience and lifestyle.
  • Scenery Porn: The movie has some truly gorgeous shots of the countryside.
  • Shown Their Work: Praised by historians and James's descendants as more accurate than any other portrayal of him.
  • Signature Headgear: A must in a Western, though there are surprisingly few Stetsons. Jesse favors a bowler, while Frank wears a Fedora of Asskicking, and Bob has a ragged top hat.
  • Spoiler Title: Jesse James is going to be assassinated by Robert Ford. It's left to the viewer to decide if Ford is a coward for what he does.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Robert Ford is characterized as a stalker fanboy of James who eventually murders him when the man does not live up to his legend.
  • Stylistic Suck: The Broadway reenactment seen late in the film, mostly due to Charley's terrible acting.
  • Suicide by Cop: It's implied that James realized that the Ford brothers wanted to kill him, and turns his back on them to give them the opportunity.
  • Tempting Fate: After bullying him, Wood laughs off Bob's threats to put a bullet in his head, and threatens him with his familial relationship to Jesse (his cousin). Later in the film, Bob makes good on his threat.
  • Train Job: The film begins with a train job in which Jesse beats a man viciously for not cooperating.
  • Trauma Conga Line: For Robert at least before he finally dies. After killing Jesse, he has to contend with the contempt of others and his reputation as a coward for 10 years before finally being murdered himself.
  • Twilight of the Old West: The film takes place in a world very much unlike the world in Robert Ford's dime novels. The James Gang has more or less fizzled out; in Real Life the gang never recovered from the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota raid of 1876, which left everyone except for Frank and Jesse dead or in prison. The film shows Jesse, now without any of his experienced comrades, trying to cobble together a new gang with local lowlifes, and mostly failing. It's the End of an Age.
  • "The Villain Sucks" Song: "The Ballad of Jesse James," a real life folk song performed by Nick Cave in the film.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Jesse's clearly a psycho, but romanticized dime novels turn him into a Robin Hood figure, and his death cements his legacy.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never find out what happened with Robert's romance with Dorothy Evans in the film. She just vanishes after two scenes. We also never learn the fate of Dick Liddil. (In real life, he was a Karma Houdini who became a successful horse owner before dying at 48 of heart trouble.) The book, however, details what happens to them.
  • With Friends Like These...: Anyone who is "friends" with James is scared for their life whenever he's around. He bullies them, makes veiled threats, and occasionally even kills them, yet they must always put on a smile. This is implied to be one of the main reasons why Robert Ford eventually kills him.