SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for Andrew Dominik's Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford... but the title of the movie itself features the biggest spoiler anyway.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is absolutely one of my favourite movies in years, if not period. I love a good western, as well as a movie that doesn’t rush to get to its conclusion… this movie has both of those elements, as well as some stellar acting (Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell especially), a gorgeous score, and it is far and away the most beautifully photographed movie I have ever seen. But, enough of that normal movie review shit; let’s get down to brass tacks.
The movie is about the infamous bank robber, Jesse James, and his last days before two other members of his gang, Robert Ford and his brother Charley, murder him. Throughout the first two hours of the movie, we are told that Jesse is the most famous man in America through the distribution of nickel books that tell stories of his crusades. When we meet Bob Ford, he is 19 to Jesse’s 34 and Bob has grown up idolizing Jesse.
The thing about Jesse, however, is that while he has committed many crimes, the idea of Jesse James as Bob knows it is more of a concept than a person. Jesse and others throughout the movie mention how the books Bob grew up reading are often fabrications, and that Jesse is not the person described in those books. However, Jesse still makes mention that there is some truth to them: he doesn’t care who rides with him, and “that’s why they call [him] gregarious.” The celebrity begins as truth, but quickly becomes an embellishment of it, although the celebrity often enjoys that embellishment.
Jesse is just that, a celebrity, and between him and Bob, I think this movie is about the concept of celebrity, and those who idolize celebrities. The release of this movie was delayed for over a year due to poor test screenings, and I think the delay only helped to make the film more prescient, as our society’s love of celebrity only seems to grow stronger as each year passes. As a culture, we are often more like Bob than we care to admit. I am far from blameless in this as well, for when I come across a link about a celebrity I admire, I will almost always click on it out of curiousity.
As the movie progresses, we witness Bob forming his own public persona, albeit almost exclusively by copying Jesse. We may not all do this the same way, but we do certainly do it now more than ever. With the advent in popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, MyFace, etc., we all get a chance to create our own public persona by customizing our pictures and information about ourselves by listing our political views and favourite movies. Again, I am guilty of this myself, and I am probably even more guilty than you because I have a blog. By reading this, you are reading a heavily edited version of my thoughts, and I am only posting what I want you to read. I am helping to construct your opinions of me as a ‘writer.’ The only difference is that people in general care about me far less than they do Brad Pitt… but I concede that he is way hotter than me, so I understand.
The Assassination of Jesse James is a decidedly anti-fame movie: it doesn’t seem to think fame is healthy, and it will eventually destroy those who have it. Jesse is murdered because of his fame: his pride in his exploits in part leads to his murder. Even when he is dead, he is still a concept that people clamor to be a part of. A picture of his corpse becomes extremely popular, and Jesse’s body goes on a road show exhibition as well. Jesse may be dead, but that only seems to make people want a piece of him more, which is akin to many posthumous pieces of media.
We have seen this most recently in the death of Michael Jackson: once he died, the mass media blew up with speculation about his death, and people tried to get one last piece of his life. Like Jesse James, Michael Jackson’s fame probably drove him at least partially insane, and could have possibly caused his death at a fairly young age. And, of course, in death we saw Jackson’s albums back at the top of the charts again (I think I remember seeing his albums were the majority of the Billboard Top 10 for a week or two), and a documentary about his proposed concert tour was rushed into theatres. Just like people once fought to pay $2 for a picture of Jesse’s corpse, people are now rushing to movie theatres to watch an unfinished version of Jackson’s last artistic contribution to the world.
The Assassination of Jesse James also shows us the effect that fame can have on people as they achieve it. After Bob and Charley murder Jesse, they attain their own type of fame. In order to capitalize on this, they begin performing a theatrical reenactment of Jesse’s last days, with Bob as himself and Charley as Jesse. Over time, we see Charley descend into depression from the guilt he feels, and his performance begins to get more accurate before he eventually kills himself. Charley couldn’t handle the guilt he felt from killing a man, much like he couldn’t handle the fame he got from partaking in the act.
Bob, however, initially relishes it. He loves being known as “the man who killed Jesse James,” and shows little remorse over the death of Jesse. He considers himself to be courageous for killing the bank robber, but he eventually starts to feel guilty and descends into alcoholism. Much like his brother, Bob eventually realized how immoral it was to use a man’s murder to increase your financial and social status. The final scene of the movie shows us Bob being killed by Edward O’Kelley, but by that point Bob has resigned himself to his fate. Bob eventually realized that fame is not a positive thing, and that it adds far more pressures than one could foresee prior to attaining it for themselves.
While the way I’m writing about this movie may make it seem like an after school special about the trappings of fame, it is much more subtle than it sounds here. Even if you aren’t as interested with the idea behind the movie as I am, you should still see it because it is a great movie. And once you do see it, be sure to post about it on your Facebook page to let everybody know just how much you love it!