Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford written and directed by Andrew Dominik (2007)

This is not a traditional Western but (and this is not an original thought) an examination of celebrity: how it can destroy the celebrity himself and how it corrupts those that venerate celebrity.

Jesse James, although an outlaw, thief, and the outright murderer of seventeen men, is compellingly portrayed by Brad Pitt with unflatteringly dyed black hair and a stoney, unnerving stare worthy of the sociopath that Jesse James undoubtedly was. You can see why the Oklahoma-born Pitt would have an interest in James; although James was a Missouri native, his escapades led him into several states surrounding Missouri (Oklahoma included) and Pitt must have been regaled with his adventures in the same way as the children of my family were fed stories of the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano (1922 – 1950) when I was growing up in the 60s.

It's a complex portrayal that does not shy away from a picture of James as a paranoid and mean-spirited individual with a penchant for violence and mischief. But he was also reportedly a devoted family man, loving husband, the father of two and a respected citizen who lived under the alias Thomas Howard.

Robert (Bob) Ford, the younger brother of Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), a James gang member, is played convincingly by Casey Affleck. His pathetic attempt to ingratiate himself with the James brothers, Frank James (Sam Shepherd) then Jesse, make you cringe but it also elicits sympathy as well.

Ford was 19, starstruck and anxious to please his hero Jesse James, with whom he had been infatuated since his childhood. The members of the James gang which included Jesse's brother Frank James were the rock stars of the mid West in 19th c. America with children's books and magazines and songs about their "adventures" which mostly involved bank and train robberies. Ford easily falls under Jesse's charismatic spell and is taken under his wing, while other gang members merely deride and humiliate him.

But there is a price to pay. Jesse is suspicious and vindictive when riled. He is quick to strike if he fears a traitor is in his midst. Bob soon fears for his own life and the life of his brother Charley after he learns that a fellow gang member has been murdered by Jesse for suspected treachery. He resolves to kill Jesse before they are killed.

But even the assassination (and well known conclusion of the affair) is not the most interesting part of the film but what happens afterwards to Bob Ford and Jesse's celebrity. What struck me most about the aftermath was the similarity between the fates of Jesse James and the Sicilian bandit Giuliano in whom I have an abiding interest.

Both were folk heroes, thieves and murderers, of humble origin and favorably compared to the more well known Robin Hood figure of Anglo-Saxon lore, revered by the majority of the "common folk". They were betrayed by a close associate (James by a gang member, Giuliano by his cousin and fellow gang member) after years of pursuit and some collusion with the local law enforcement.

Their corpses were displayed to the authorities like wild game caught, resting on slabs of ice for inspection by all and sundry and then photographed before triumphant authorities and posted in newspapers and journals. They achieved a sort of super-nova status as celebrities in death. One in America in the 1880s and the other in Sicily and Europe in the mid 20th c. even though they were criminals and outlaws. People would go on to name their sons after Jesse and Salvatore for decades to come.

In the 1880s, Bob and Charley Ford go on to tour the local theatre circuit and reenact the murder of Jesse who was shot in the back in his own home (Charley plays Jesse in the productions). There's is an eerie, unexplained suggestion that Jesse wanted Bob to kill him, even bought him a beautiful nickel plated gun just prior to the murder. The incongruity or shame of the situation eventually ruins Charley who kills himself.

Bob dies a slower death, emotionally succumbing to the daily threats of those angered by Jesse's assassination, even though he achieves a measure of celebrity, or notoriety himself. Ford's fate is no better than Jesse James but with the difference that no one will ever name their children after Robert Ford or buy a photograph of his murdered corpse to venerate like a religious object after his death.


Anonymous said...

Well said.

A Lit Chick said...

Thanks Roxanne, do you have special interest in Jesse James?