Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (The)
R1 - America - Warner Home Video
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (14th February 2008).
The Film

In 1882, the young Robert Ford shot dead the outlaw Jesse James; as Billy Gashade’s famous ballad about the outlaw’s death goes, Bob Ford ‘ate of Jesse’s bread/ and he slept in Jesse’s bed/ Then he laid poor Jesse in his grave’. Ford achieved fame and notoriety through his assassination of James, but this act of betrayal eventually led to Ford’s own assassination in 1892, by Ed O’Kelley. The relationship between Ford and James has entered popular myth; aside from the numerous novels and songs based on James’ death at the hands of Ford, the story has been told many times in cinema, most notably in Henry King’s 1939 film ’Jesse James’, Fritz Lang’s 1940 film ’The Return of Frank James’ (in which Jesse’s brother Frank, played by Henry Fonda, seeks to avenge Jesse’s death), Samuel Fuller’s 1949 ’I Shot Jesse James’ (which focuses on Robert Ford’s life after the murder of James), Nicholas Ray’s 1957 ’The True Story of Jesse James’ and Walter Hill’s ’The Long Riders’ (1980).

In many of these films, James is portrayed as a folk hero; at the end of Henry King’s 1939 film about James, the character of Major Cobb stands at James’ graveside and offers a lament that attempts to explain the appeal of a character like Jesse James: ‘Maybe it’s because he was bold and lawless, like we all of us like to be sometimes. Maybe it’s because we understand a little that he wasn’t altogether to blame for what his times made him… or maybe it’s because he was so good at what he was doing’. However, Andrew Dominik’s ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ takes a revisionist approach to its subject matter: through Brad Pitt’s nuanced performance, Jesse is painted as a complex and sympathetic man who also happens to be troubled, paranoid and, at times, simply frightening. Our sympathy for James is undermined early in the film, when during Frank and Jesse’s last train heist at Blue Cut, Missouri, Jesse needlessly strikes a ‘company man’ on the train, leaving the man lying in a pool of his own blood. Jesse will also happily beat or murder his former friends and accomplices, yet he is also portrayed as a family man who will play with his children. These two conflicting aspects of Jesse’s personality are brought out in the scene in which he murders his former accomplice Ed Miller; Pitt’s Jesse James coldly shoots Miller whilst at the same time gently calming his horse, repeatedly telling her ‘It’s okay, sweetheart’. In another scene, Jesse needlessly beats the young cousin of Bob and Charley Ford, before breaking down in tears in regret at what he has become. In this film, the character of Jesse James seems trapped within the persona that has been created for him through folk tales and pulp literature, a victim of his notoriety: he is unable to live a normal life with his family, and throughout the film he becomes increasingly paranoid and fearful for his life.

Pitt’s Jesse James also seems to recognise the ways in which his fate is intertwined with that of Bob Ford (Casey Affleck); the narration tells us that Jesse ‘camouflaged his depressions and derangements with masquerades of extreme cordiality, courtesy and goodwill towards others […] Jesse would look over at Bob with melancholy in his eyes, as if the two were mashed together in intimate communication’. Not long before his death at the hands of Ford, Jesse gives Bob Ford a present of a new gun; it is the gun that Ford will later use to kill Jesse. In the same scene, triggered by a discussion of his murder of Ed Miller Jesse reflects on what he has become, expressing feelings of guilt: ‘I go on journeys out of my body and look at my red hands and my mean face; I wonder about that man that’s gone so wrong’. In his final moments, Jesse seems to accept his fate, removing his gunbelt before turning his back on Ford; Pitt gives Jesse’s actions and speech during this scene a sense of deliberation, suggesting through his performance that Jesse knows that he must die and almost seems to invite his death, offering himself to Ford. After his death, James becomes a victim, his lifeless body offered as a spectacle for those who would pay to see it.

The film begins with the Blue Cut heist, after most of Jesse’s gang have disbanded or been rounded up by the law; when his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) leaves (the narration tells us that Frank found Jesse’s behaviour to be ‘peculiar’), Jesse takes up semi-retirement in Missouri. His fate intertwines with that of Robert Ford, the younger brother of Jesse’s accomplice Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell). After Robert kills Jesse’s cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) for threatening the life of their friend Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), the Ford brothers fear for their lives. The rest of the film builds up to its inevitable climax: the assassination of Jesse James by Bob Ford, Ford’s subsequent fame and his death at the barrel of Ed O’Kelley’s shotgun. The outlaw is humanised (as James says in the film, ‘You ought to pity me too’), and so is his killer; the film avoids making easy moral judgements, and consequently in its representation of the outlaw ‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’ is similar in tone to John Milius 1973 film ‘Dillinger’, which condemns neither the outlaw John Dillinger nor his pursuer, the FBI agent Melvin Purvis.

‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’ benefits from a third-person narration, delivered in a cold and factual manner by Hugh Ross. Third-person narration is rare in cinema; and as in ’Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters’ (Paul Schrader, 1985), ’Badlands’ (Terrence Malick, 1973) and ’Barry Lyndon’ (Stanley Kubrick, 1975), in ‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’ the third-person narration is used to provide a detached perspective on the action and to provide an ironic commentary on the relationship between history and myth. This is a subject to which the narration frequently refers, and early in the film the narrator asserts that sometimes facts can’t be separated from myth, and reminds us that we are watching a mediated version of events which may or may not correspond to the historical reality.

Casey Affleck plays Bob Ford as a seemingly simple man who is looked down upon by both his family and his acquaintances. Affleck’s Ford displays flashes of insight and, during the last third of the film, begins to emerge as calculating chess player with a deceptively simply exterior. He begins the film as an adoring fan of Jesse’s, but then is motivated by jealousy into killing his idol, seeing the murder of James as his opportunity to make something of his life. During one dialogue scene, Ford asserts that ‘I’ve been a nobody all my life […] I was the one they made promises to that they never kept. And ever since I can remember it, Jesse James has been as big as a tree […] I know that I won’t get but this one opportunity’. After Jesse’s death, Ford achieves the fame that he has been seeking; night after night, he and his brother Charley restage the assassination of Jesse James on the stage, and Ford even begins to wear clothes that resemble Jesse’s (principally, a black derby hat and a waistcoat). Ford has time to express regret over his murder of James before he is gunned down by O’Kelley, telling the dancer Dorothy Evans (Zooey Deschanel) that, ‘You know what I expected? Applause […] I was surprised when it happened: they didn’t applaud’.

The film seeks to humanise both Jesse James and Robert Ford; tellingly, at one point in the film Charley tells Bob, ‘You think it’s all made up, don’t you. You think it’s all yarns and newspaper stories’; Bob responds by telling Charley, ‘He [Jesse] is just a human being’. Both Ford and James are lonely men who, despite their actions and their violence, provoke our sympathy; their loneliness is expressed visually, in the way in which they are both frequently isolated within the frame. ‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’ is about two men that are united in their isolation, killers who express regret for their what they have done before becoming victims in a seemingly endless cycle of violence; in death, both James and Ford enter the realm of myth and are exploited by it, victims of history. It’s an utterly fatalistic film; its fatalism is expressed in the title. There is no mystery about the fate of either Jesse James or Robert Ford: history (and the film’s title) tells us that Ford killed Jesse and was in turn killed by O’Kelley.

The film not only deconstructs the myth surrounding Jesse James, but also undermines the conventions of the genre, especially its approach to violence. In ‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’ gunfights can last for seconds or they can extend for long periods of time with the participants unable to hit their target: Wood Hite and Dick Liddil shoot at each other from close range, but they are not able to hit one another. Some shots explicitly refer back to the classics of the genre: for example, as the Fords and Jesse approach the house of Jesse’s wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker), a tracking shot follows Zee as she passes through the doorway; in its framing and the movement of the camera, the shot refers back to the introduction of Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s ’The Searchers’ (1956).

The film’s pace is deliberate, unhurried and (if you are in tune with the material) almost hypnotic; the cinematography (by Roger Deakins) is truly stunning, dwarfing the characters against some gorgeous, largely autumnal and wintry, landscapes. (Deakins' work on this film is at least a match for his work on the Coens' 'No Country For Old Men'.) The Blue Cut train robbery sequence is particularly well-shot: it takes place in darkness, the masked faces of the robbers picked out by lantern light. Many of the shots seem composed in an attempt to recreate the tin-type photographs of the era, and consequently they often make heavy use of browns, yellows and golds. At times (especially during the moments when Hugh Ross' narration appears in the film), Deakins uses a specially-made lens (which he has labelled the 'Deakinizer') that adds heavy distortion to all four sides of the frame; this technique seems almost like a visual representation of the historical tunnel vision that is provided by myth, and adds another layer to the period detail. Nick Cave's music is minimalist and evocative, and Cave appears in the film as a man singing Gashade's famous ballad about Jesse James, and who makes a factual error that Bob Ford corrects ('He had two children, not three').

The structure of the film is often elliptical, leaving gaps in the narrative that are explained through dialogue later on. Speaking of dialogue, the dialogue in this film is often very naturalistic, and at times the film feels as if it is the work of someone like John Cassavetes, although Dominik's major influence seems to have been the films of Terrence Malick. ‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’s unhurried approach to its narrative is rare in this day and age, and is in stark contrast with most modern Hollywood films. Dominik’s slowly-paced and evocative movie acts as an interesting counterpoint to James Mangold’s action-oriented remake of ’3:10 To Yuma’: both films offer very different attempts at reworking the core elements of the genre for a 21st Century audience, looking back at the past whilst keeping one eye on the present.


‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’, a beautifully-shot film, is presented via a very good transfer that shows off the film’s autumnal colour scheme, with some snow-set sequences that look particularly stunning. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for playback on widescreen televisions.

The film is uncut; its running time is 159:29.


The disc contains Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in English, Spanish and French. There's nothing 'flashy' about the sound design of this film: the 5.1 track plays to the film's strengths, and particularly shows off Nick Cave's evocative music.

The disc contains subtitles in English, English (HoH), French and Spanish.


Sadly, Warner’s DVD contains no extra features, beyond some bonus trailers (for ‘The Bucket List’, ‘One Missed Call’, ’10,000 BC’, ‘The Brave One’ and ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’).

A documentary or some other form of contextual material would have been welcome.


For Western fans, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ is a delight: it’s a fascinating, revisionist approach to a story that has been told many times before, and it’s held together by some beautiful photography, naturalistic dialogue and two great central performances from both Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. However, it’s a far cry from the action-oriented Western film: it’s a slowly-paced and thoughtful approach to the Jesse James mythology. Warner’s DVD contains an excellent presentation of the film, but is lacking in extra features; hopefully, Warner will revisit this title at some point in the future, because some contextual material (in the form of a documentary or a commentary track) would be much appreciated.

In March, a 2-disc release of the film is due to be released in the UK; although this is one of the best films of 2007, the certainty of an extras-laden release in the future makes this disc hard to recommend.

For more info, please visit the homepage of Warner Home Video (US).

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:


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