The montage that opens The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford sets the tone for the myth making that is to be slowly unravelled as the film progresses. From the description of Jesse’s demeanour, his physical appearance and his inner most thoughts, we are fed an evocative image of a man for which we have no connection other than what is being told to us. Jesse’s anticipation of the train arriving paints him as instinctual and cunning whilst his fluid, silhouetted figure as he holds up a train displays him as beyond human, angelic almost. His initial discussion with Bob Ford is enigmatic and peculiar as he discusses the lack of noodles in his stew, flights of fancy that become more potent and suggestive as the film continues.
This is a construction. An image of a man communicated to us through the veneer of editing, imagery, narration and performance. This is not Jesse James. It is Brad Pitt suggesting Jesse James, the infamous American bandit of the late 19th century. We know this, but does Robert Ford? As a young man growing up, Robert Ford formed an obsession with Jesse James through newspaper clippings and paperback novels. Through these circulated, mass media images he forms the ideal image of his idol, a hero who robs from the rich union men and republicans and gives to the poor. Robert Ford, unlike the many of us who share similar adulation for public figures, gets to meet his idol, and to his surprise Jesse is a figure far removed from the one solidified in his mind. As Bob Ford becomes integrated into the decaying James gangs inner circle, the myth of Jesse James he has perpetuated his entire life begins to unravel as he is witness to the increasing unpredictability and paranoia of the man. He has consumed the myth of Jesse James and is embittered when the uncanniness of his actual person conflicts with this ideal image. Previous to actually shooting the man, Robert Ford states that “He’s just a human being”; a painful proclamation of this realisation, which he uses to justify his act of murder and betrayal.
Newspapers, photographs and printed media play a central role in not only Robert Ford’s illusion, but also contribute to the allegiance of a general public opinion, one which sways back and forth between condemning James’ criminality and praising his martyrdom. Robert Ford and his brother Charlie even re-enact the event over 800 times through stage performance, yet again creating a myth out of the mass circulation and repetition of a rose-tinted event. The blurred frames that accompany Jesse and company throughout the film themselves act as blinkers, shedding the audience from the whole picture by forcing focus to the central figure of the frame. Mass media gives us the truth, but the truth is filtered through numerous sources and edits before reaching us, the result of which can make a man out of a monster.
Along with this is perhaps the greatest illusion of them all: the great American dream. Any man can make a name for himself, obtaining fame and fortune in the land of opportunity. Such is the way of the classic Western hero whose valiant actions are emblematic of a nation’s values and morality. In Jesse James’ world, criminality has provided a shortcut to heroism, and rather than honest and hard work, his fame and fortune are scrounged up from others by force and violent acts. Even today criminal activity continues to provide a back door to infamy, and yet again it is the printing press which mythologises criminals and defines them as alluring and inspirational figures. Jesse James is a living embodiment of this process, and as we learn more about the character, his despondency and emptiness become apparent, as the holes in his being become sprawled out before us like a gun belt over a chair. Robert Ford aspires to this American myth and desires nothing more than “greatness” as a way of making a name for himself and lifting himself out of the drudgery of an existence plagued by mockery from others. Yet he to finds no solace in his final act as the American dream also becomes an empty pursuit, exposed as an unattainable illusion. Robert Ford takes the place of Jesse James, but finds that in the end there is no applause. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford our idols are for our consumption. Yet once devoured the meal seems wholly unsatisfying.
Written by Simon Di Berardino