American Masterpiece: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
by Mike Dawson
Left Field Cinema
Perhaps it is a little unfair that Andrew Dominik’s sophomore cinematic offering has been frequently compared to the work of Terrance Malick. For such grand comparisons often result in disappointment for the viewer with the revelation that although they are not ill founded they are not entirely accurate either. Along with statements that the makers of The Blair Witch Project suffered upon release like “the greatest horror movie ever made” they raise the bar to such a significant height that even the most accomplished director would feel the weight of expectation crippling them where they stand. Malick is considered by many to be a lyrical genius, a modern American auteur and the greatest director working in the United States today; he is a colossus in the world of film with unquestionable artistic integrity. Dominik by comparison is a relative unknown New Zealander with 2000’s Chopper as his only previous film; in this sense he is in many ways like Malick, taking an extended seven-year absence before releasing this follow-up. Chopper was met with general critical acclaim, and yet he is still considered an unusual choice to direct a film about such a significant American legend. In actuality Dominik is perfect for the challenge, as with previous films dealing with either significant events in American history or commenting on the psyche of the nation – an outsider does it best. United 93, American Beauty and the like work better because of there is a more objective foreigner at the helm who can look at the events from the outside.
The story of the film follows the last days of the life of notorious gunslinger and outlaw Jesse James, multiple murderer, criminal, and fugitive. He and his brother worked with a small gang and successfully robbed banks and trains for many years, only the brothers remain alive from the original gang, and the elder brother Frank James has had enough of his younger siblings peculiar attitude and decides to leave this world behind. Sam Shepard is coldly menacing in the few scenes he is present, but without words or extended screen time manages to conjure a sense of dread, that the dark days are coming. What follows is the drifting of Jesse, constantly paranoid about who will try to capture or kill him, and aware that his greatest enemies are very probably the ones closest to him. The films second act is very passive, setting the criminal minds in play and switching perspective between our two titular characters, and other subordinates. Jesse then begins to kill the remaining members of his gang one by one as and when he deems them disloyal, whilst his gang attempt to decipher his next move, and are constantly aware that with Jesse often comes death. In the gang is the other titular character, nineteen year old Robert Ford, another younger brother, and a borderline fantasist. He has been obsessed with Jesse James from a young age and is determined to get as close to his hero as he can. As his canonised image of Jesse begins to be unraveled he is left crushed with the knowledge that his life has been wasted idolising a bully, a sociopath, and a madman. As the truth comes to light, so to do Robert’s murderous impulses, leading to climax which is reached as much through fate as it is though callous manipulation with an almost suicidal streak in Jesse’s choices.
To Read the Rest of the Essay
To Listen to It