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What I Like About The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

First, there’s that magnificent title. On top of its glorious unconventionality, it says so much about the film we’re about to experience. The movie itself is in the neighborhood of 160 minutes, but the entire plot is summed up in that title. This isn’t a story of suspense with a surprise ending, but a reflection on a specific event. More than a reflection, it’s history with an openly-slanted agenda. There is a world of meaning in that title, but the tip-off is in two of those words particularly. The first word is assassination. “Assassination” says something about both the killer and the victim. It implies that the killer was not deliberately provoked and acted in such a way as to prevent the victim from defending himself. It also implies that the victim was in some sense symbolic. He wasn’t killed at random, but because of who he was and what he stood for. The second word is coward. That word lays out who will be the hero and who the villain from the very beginning.

Second, the execution makes the story far more rich and complex than the title implies. As one might suspect from the runtime, the movie takes its time, meandering languidly through the lives of not only James and Ford, but of their families and associates during the months preceding the main event. We get a sense of the time and the people. In particular, we get a feel for James’ weirdly magnetic personality, and also begin to understand how Ford’s character makes the journey (a shorter one than we might expect) from fawning adulation to resentment and betrayal.

Throughout, Assassination never lets us lose sight of the fact that this, like every other piece of our historical record, is at best an imperfect construct. Like all smaller stories drawn from the vast, sprawling thing that is History, it begins somewhere and ends somewhere and carefully selects certain episodes to supply a comfortable, recognizable narrative reference frame to something that, in real life, is far more labyrinthine. Various portions are narrated by the quiet, sure voice of Hugh Ross, supplying details; names, dates, and other important, semi-important, and merely interesting particulars. Frequently during the narration, the images on the screen are filmed through a fish-eye lens. The technique draws attention to the presence of the lens, which reveals, but also distorts. The result is both brilliant and beautiful (Roger Deakins did the cinematography).

Third, at its heart, the movie is a profound rumination on the capricious, shallow, artificial nature of public opinion and collective memory. I’ve stated that in a very general way because it encompasses a couple of different themes. The first half-hour (and these times are purely from memory) introduce us to the title characters. James, played with an enticing aloofness by Brad Pitt, is a bit of an enigma. By the time the movie begins, he is already in the later stages of his career as one of the most famous outlaws in American history. A lot of people want to be close to him for a lot of reasons, but perhaps none so much as young Robert Ford, who has worshipped James since childhood and believes he knows everything about the older man. Given the opportunity to join his role-model on a train heist, Ford leaps at the chance and is quick to attempt to ingratiate himself with the James brothers.

Frank, the older brother, has no patience for Bob’s rambling praise, but Jesse seems part-flattered and part-pleased at having someone so willing to perform menial tasks for him. For his part, Ford believes himself to be destined for big things, and that can mean only one thing: fame or infamy. Ford wants to be a celebrity the way the James brothers are, and his first plan is to have his name associated with theirs. It’s not just that Ford wants to be like the James brothers, though. The key to all this is that he is nothing like them, and can never be. It may even be that his very adulation is what sabotages his desire. Over the course of the next hour or so, Ford becomes slowly disenchanted with his idol, and Jesse sinks into almost-psychotic paranoia. Their scenes together during this process are riveting and perfect.

By the time the film moves into its final hour, Ford has come up with a new plan to achieve the national attention he so desperately craves. Seeing the writing on the wall, he realizes that it is only a matter of time before someone gets the great Jesse James. Why shouldn’t that someone be him? Although the outcome is a foregone conclusion, the path to betrayal manages to generate more than a little tension, but it is during the film’s coda that the major themes really come into play.

Jesse’s death is big news, making national headlines just as Ford had hoped. Before long, both Ford and his brother have steady work on the big-city stage circuit re-enacting the famous deed over and over before full-houses, like some sort of freakish historical echo. As the narrator says, Ford estimated that he killed Jesse James more than 800 times. He was as responsible as anyone, perhaps, for the wide-spread notoriety of the event. It takes very little time, however, perhaps no time at all, for the tide of public opinion to turn against him.

Jesse James has become in death even more of a folk hero than he was in life; a mythic combination of Robin Hood, sharing the wealth, and a Confederate guerrilla, keeping the dream of the South’s cherished Lost Cause alive years after the surrender at Appomattox. Robert Ford, who, after all, betrayed the trust of a friend and literally shot him in the back, hasn’t a chance of standing up before this image. He eventually fades into a peaceful half-anonymity, running a business out on the Colorado frontier, until another fame-seeker comes looking to kill the man who killed Jesse James.

The narrator quietly informs us that, unlike Jesse, “There would be no eulogies for Bob, no photographs of his body would be sold in sundries stores, no people would crowd the streets in the rain to see his funeral cortege, no biographies would be written about him, no children named after him, no one would ever pay twenty-five cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in.” And so, Robert Ford fades into the background of history once more, though perhaps not quite so completely as does Edward O’Kelly, his killer.

The whole thing serves to underline how tenuous our grasp is, not only on the story of everything that is going on around us and what has happened before, but on our own stories. Memory is a tricky thing, and a treacherous one, and certain destinies are more elusive than we like to believe. Despite all efforts to the contrary, our legacies will ultimately be set down and assessed by somebody else, if they are remembered at all.

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~ by Jared on September 7, 2008.

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