“He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious lest this mutilation be seen. He also had a condition that was referred to as granulated eyelids and it caused him to blink more than usual, as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.”
So declares Hugh Ross, narrator of the unwieldy-titled The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, in the film’s opening scenes. He’s talking about the titular outlaw, and goes on to share a laundry list of the man’s supposed superstitions: that incense is made from the bones of saints, that leather continues to grow unless dyed, and that his own bio electricity could stun a lake-frog.
It’s a fascinating subversion of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. Ross paints a colourful portrait of Jesse – we aren’t exactly endeared to him, but we are fascinated.
And then Ross gradually moves from fact-apparent to conjecture and gossip…
“Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. His enemies would not have been much surprised if he produced horned owls from beer bottles or made candles out of his fingers.”
What’s the meaning of this?
Our narrator is unreliable – at least, within the context of the film. Much of the voice over is taken from Ron Hansen’s identically-titled, creepily-accurate novel; historically, Jesse did have those medical conditions and disfigurements.
But he doesn’t in the film. We don’t see his bullet wounds. Jess never blinks – he just glares. And his mutilated middle-finger is only shown once; we get a better idea of how it looks from Robert Ford’s creepy imitation.
Jesse James is a film about fame. Having it and wanting it. Dominik uses the text of the novel in a fascinatingly anachronistic way – deprived of proof, those long paragraphs about Jesse become the equivalent of a TMZ column devoted to speculating whether a celebrity is gay or not. The film was released in 2007 – around the same time that Twitter started to take off – and Ross’s narration acts as something of a constantly-updating feed of the drama in Jesse’s life. ‘Keeping up with the Jameses’, if you will.
“Alexander Franklin James would be in Baltimore when he would read of the assassination of Jesse James. He had spurned his younger brother for being peculiar and temperamental, but once he perceived that he would never see Jesse again, Frank would be wrought up, perplexed, despondent.”
It’s Gawker-lit; gossip couched in flowery words.
Jesse James examines another aspect of fame, and that’s how goddamn exhausting it is. Jess seems exhausted, beset on all sides by treacherous gang members and ruthless Pinkerton agents. He suffers from congestive illnesses and deep depressions and hallucinations. It’s something we see in anybody who has spent too much time in the spotlight.
Casting Brad Pitt as the titular outlaw was a fantastic decision on Dominik’s part; we can almost detect a self-focused fatigue in his voice when he delivers lines like:
“I go on journeys out of my body and look at my red hands and my mean face and I wonder about that man who’s gone so wrong.”
Our patchy narrator offers speculation too:
“And so it went. Jesse was increasingly cavalier, merry, moody, fay, unpredictable. He camouflaged his depressions and derangements with masquerades of extreme cordiality, curtesy, and goodwill towards others.”
Jesse James also explores that seediest aspect of fame – the stalker. Robert Ford gazes at Jesse from afar, reads embellished dime-novel accounts of his escapades, and lounges in the outlaw’s bed when he’s not around.
“I can’t figure it out.’ Jess mutters. ‘Do you wanna be like me, or do you wanna be me?”
Robert adopts the scorned-lover mindset common to many celebrity stalkers, eventually turning against the object of his fixation and killing Jess when the man gives him an opening. The film casts this as an act of submission on Jesse’s part; he takes his guns off and turns away from Robert, a move that, throughout the movie, always results in somebody getting shot in the back. Jess doesn’t surrender to his killer so much as he capitulates to fame; it’s an unusual suicide, but not too unlike Kurt Cobain’s.
There is a tendency to view celebrities as larger-than-life characters – strange beings to be picked apart and examined. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the best films about this peculiar life, while taking place in a time when Hollywood would’ve been conceptually unthinkable. It’s slow, it’s beautiful. It’s more relevant than ever.
The best scene in the films 159-minute run-time comes when Robert surprises Jesse in his yard. The outlaw is smoking a cigar, deep in thought, and doesn’t notice Bob until the boy is almost in front of him. In that moment he looks up, his face changing – blankness breaking into an expression of genuine welcome – and for a second, seems to hope that the boy might be interested in something other than his fame.
JESSE: My brother and me are hardly on speaking terms these days.
BOB: I wasn’t going to mention it.