Twice in the film “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” we see a man moments before his own death, and each of them knows it. But they do not scream or beg for their lives. They do not run away, hide, or exhibit other such displays of cowardice, though one of them is known for it. Neither do they fight back, or try to act heroic, for neither one is a hero. Instead, they seem to face the reaper with indifference.
Death, depending on your point of view, is either the most poetic part of life, or the most horrific undertaking a human being can undergo. Somehow, the death scenes of this film seem to convey both sides. Director Andrew Dominik imbues the entire film with a similar layered approach to create remarkably sustained, intense, visual poetry.
Some of these layers are the multiple perceptions of each character, evident throughout the film. One of the title characters, the famed outlaw Jesse James, played expertly by Brad Pitt, is a celebrity to most of the American public. He is a romantic figure of the west, mysterious and larger than life. Yet, to some, he is a menace to society who must be brought down at all costs.
Robert Ford, played by Casey Affleck, idolizes Jesse James as the film begins. “Do you wanna be like me, or do you wanna be me,” Jesse asks him. Yet, as he is slighted by Jesse and ridiculed by others, he becomes embittered and decides to commit the heinous act referenced in the film’s title. After that moment, he likes to think himself a hero, but has to face the reality of the situation when the public vehemently disagrees.
The film also spends a surprising amount of time on supporting characters, showing them interact with each other, and most importantly, with Jesse. All this seems to be working toward a grand hypothesis of honor in the West, but like the character of Jesse James, it remains enigmatic to the end. Some of the subplots are not necessarily present because they are vital to the plot, but rather they fit nicely within the flow of the picture, providing more moments of poignancy and varied stanzas within the longer poem of the film.
Indeed, the bulk of the film is not so much the story of the last year of Jesse’s life, but rather meditations on what he was to America and the people close to him. Such a narrative method requires a strong visual approach, and Dominik does not disappoint.
Fast moving clouds, slow moving people, busy city streets, and lonely, snowy meadows make each scene flow like music, provoking nostalgia and anticipation. Figures loom and lurk in shadows and fog, silhouetted in sunlight and headlights, stalking like the heroes and villains of tall tales. This is not the past you may be aware of, but rather it is the Western of our collective American unconscious.
In case I haven’t been clear up to now, let me say that this film is a masterpiece. It’s a film that is so singular an experience that it is almost hard to pinpoint the reasons you enjoyed it. Rather than staying in front of you on the screen, it flows around you, immersing you. I could spend more time trying to explain the merits of the film, but it is truly something you need to experience for yourself.