“The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford” The Prophet, The Coward and The Nobody: An Essay

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Dominik

DIRECTOR OF CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins

SCREENPLAY BY: Andrew Dominik

RELEASE: 2007

Intro

From the outset of the film Bob and Jesse mirror each other, even if it’s a warped reflection. Dark suit, light shirt; Bob’s suit is “all over him” buttoned to the top implying a humble, negligent demeanor. He is very much a child. Where as Jesse wears his shirt with the top buttons open, suit well-fitted, meticulous to put it simply, he’s a cool guy; a man. At least on the surface because as the film will shows us Jesse is every bit as much of a child as Bob, perhaps even more so because like a child, he faces no repercussions. 

Jesse and His Gang complete a robbery and while “holed up” afterwards Jesse and Bob sit on the porch and share a cigar. It is in this exchange we see not only Bob’s infatuation with Jesse and his Legend, but the validation Jesse feels from it. As well as the infatuation Jesse has for himself. In an earlier scene while in conversation, Jesse tells Bob “That’s why they call me gregarious“ most likely referencing a newspaper. To drive this point home, while sharing the cigar Bob pulls out newspaper clippings about Jesse and while at first acting bewildered by the gesture, he settles back and lets Bob read a few sentences before stopping him.

Jesse/Jesus?

Jesse for all intents and purposes is GOD personified. Not quite Jesus, though one could point to the obvious parallel of Jesus and Judas to Jesse and Bob, who as the title would imply is the one to bring about the messiah’s demise. 

Jesse is held in high regard, so much so, that he references his own folklore when speaking to others. At one point stating, “All of America thinks highly of me.” we initially believe people are infatuated with Jesse, which may be the case, but we see soon see that there is an extreme, and very lethal fear, to accompany the infatuation; “god fearing.” We witness it on a number of occasions, most explicitly when Jesse murders a member of his gang, Ed Miller; a simpleton who lets slip that he is in cahoots to capture Jesse for a posted bounty. Coming to the realization of his fate, Ed Miller tearfully agrees “to go for a ride.” 

Sticking with the supernatural/messiah theme Jesse arrives at the house of Ed Miller, a cohort/gang member unannounced, shocking Ed, who begins to act deathly afraid. Walking through the doorway Jesse is a literal black figure, grim reaper reference perhaps, as he walks into the home he is in a dim but warm lighting; this could be the director’s way of showing Jesse’s temperament as well as which incarnation of the God we are seeing. At the moment Jesse is all smiles, but we would have to ask ourselves WHY is Jesse showing up unannounced, if not for a sinister reason.

Jesse, seeing that Ed is afraid, notices a pistol in Ed’s hand, the mood in room changes. Jesse sits himself down and now there is a noticeable coldness to him. His demeanor, and the lighting; “white hot,” gives Jesse’s face an “Icy” quality. As the scene unfolds we can see a very different Jesse. The bright lighting now giving Jesse a ghoulish appearance, very pale skin, stone faced and blue eyed. Is this an incarnation or is this the REAL Jesse?!

Jesse is mentally unstable, unpredictable but poised. Arguably the most evil character in the film, and very much the antagonist in every way. It should be noted, not a single person, women included, show any moral fiber. But perhaps it is Jesse’s dominant nature backed by his murderous reputation that allows him to display a bullies swagger that others seem beholden to submit to.

The very opening scene is a monologue that proclaims a supernatural quality to his being. Reinforcing the god-like quality, on occasion, Jesse is lit in ways that makes him seem angelic or demonic.

Bob(Robert Ford)/Judas?

Mentally, he is very much still a child. Nervous, but very capable of murder. Starstruck of Jesse, what initially comes off as a childlike admiration, we soon see what Bob has is an intense infatuation; not sexual, but a very literal desire to become Jesse James. 

While bathing Jesse can feel Bob’s presence and asks Bob “do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” To which Bob never gives a proper answer. As the events of the film unfold and Bob’s feelings for Jesse turn from admiration to contempt the question is something it seems Bob is never quite able to answer. 

Throughout the course of the film Bob makes very conscious observations of Jesse, something that is pointed out by the narrator, but this does not result in any of Bob’s Mannerisms reflecting Jesse’s. It seemed as though he was taking note for future reference or looking to see if the nickel books he read were accurate. Similar to how they mirror each other in dress, they also occupy similar positions, albeit on different ends of the spectrum among their peers. Jesse is often the center of attention and admiration, while Bob finds himself the butt of everyone’s jokes. As the film progresses, Jesse seems to take as much interest in Bob, as Bob does with Jesse. On the surface Jesse is suspicious that Bob has ulterior motives and Bob is worried that he will be found out, about his plot kill Jesse. The only time in the film we ever see Bob truly mimic Jesse is the day before he kills him, and does so while Jesse and his family are off at church for Palm Sunday service. Drinking from Jesse’s glass and laying in Jesse’s bed he contemplated what it would be like to be Jesse, including being dead.

We find out Bob is capable of murder when he kills Wood Hytt, a fellow gang member; an emphasis on facial expressions is something we will touch on going forward; in this case, Wood’s murder occurs as he is trying to exact an honor killing. A boarder at Bob’s home is Dick Liddle, a cohort of the Gang who has slept with Woods father’s wife. Wood upon arriving at Bob’s Sister’s home where Bob resides is informed of Dick’s presence and a close-quarter gun battle ensues. Both Dick and Wood(that may be an inside joke from the Author, if not that is just ironic!) are injured but Dick is out of bullets and shot in the shin, unable to move Wood calmly walks over to his pistol, dismissively looking at Bob, who is noticeably frightened clutching his pistol with both hands, to his chest like a safety blanket. Wood turns his back to Bob and turns to deliver the coup de grace to an injured Dick. As Wood reaches Dick, pressing his pistol to the top of Dick’s head. We cut to Bob, now in an almost trance, reminiscent of Jesse, who we see enter that trance when he is about to shoot the Blue Cut train employee. He raises his pistol and puts a single bullet into Woods head from across the room. Almost as if the shot was not so much to protect a fallen comrade but to avenge a perceived slight. How dare Wood treat Bob with such disrespect! Bob warned Wood failing to show the proper respect, would result in Bob “putting a bullet in [his]head.”

One Of You Will…

One thing that we become privy to almost immediately is that some of Jesse’s men have hatched a plan to capture Jesse, letting us know that the “love” isn’t as genuine or universal as we may have been led to believe. Which could be a reason for Jesse’s ever growing paranoia through the film. 

There are only 3 occasions in the film where someone addresses Jesse in either a condescending or less than respectful tone; the first is Jesse’s older brother Frank and the other two belong to Bob. Both times noticeably take Jesse aback, provoking almost child-like behavior. On one of these two occasions Jesse puts a knife to Bob’s throat. 

Thy Will Be Done

Does Jesse know Bob is going to kill him? Of course, this is us thinking from a completely fantastic point of view. Let’s say the opening monologue that proclaims “rains fell straighter and clocks slowed…” wasn’t so much hyperbole as much as it was a literal description. Jesus came to us a god, but a deity in human flesh who can be killed and to elaborate further, knew explicitly that he was sent with the purpose of being killed. 

Doppelgänger/Reincarnation

The trance that Bob and Jesse share, that links their psyche’s, may be a manifestation of Jesse’s want to kill himself or perhaps a more occultist outlook would be that it is merely GOD’s will and as Christ/Anti-Christ it is Jesse’s destiny to be “sacrificed.” 

Another parallel between Bob and Jesse is the trance-like state and wide eyed stare on the blue cut train robbery; staring at the back of the head of the employee, laying with blood flowing from his head. Jesse in an almost child like impulse puts his pistol to the back of the man’s head and pulls back the hammer. Ed miller, a member of Jesse’s gang yells, for Jesse not to shoot the man, snapping Jesse out of the trance. -We will come right back to the train Robbery.

Bob’s has a similar trance, that we address a couple paragraphs back, Wood Hytt. The Assassination Of Jesse James is a picture that benefits from rewatching. While the trance would signify a connection of the psyche, Jesse and Bob’s, to expound further, the train worker has dark hair and is wearing a white shirt, black waistcoats, and dark slacks; the exact same thing Jesse is wearing when Bob shoots Jesse in the back of his head. (Taken out of context the shot might even be able to pass for Jesse lying there.)

Bob is merely the tool by which the assassination will come. An interpretation of Jesse’s berating of Bob through the film, could be that Jesse is really attacking himself, inflicting his own passion, after which he presents Bob with the literal weapon to be formed against him, a pistol, before giving Bob the opportunity to shoot him. 

Suicide/Crucifixion 

Jesse lays down his pistols and stands on top of a chair, to dust a picture frame. Upon which time Bob draws his pistol and fires a single round into the back of Jesse’s head. Jesse falls lifeless and Bobs falls down onto the couch letting out an exhale as though he just finished came home from a day’s work. The most important detail in this scene is that while Bob is drawing his pistol and readying to shoot, Jesse is watching Bob in the reflection of the frame, alluding to him staring at the back of the train worker’s head from the first scene. Also, Bob and Jesse are dressed in very similar clothing but the glass, obscures Bobs appearance; the doppelgänger. 

The chair could symbolize being held a loft for others to see; like a public execution or crucifixion; again drawing a parallel to Jesus and Judas and the messiah willingly volunteering himself for the sacrifice. Jesse is now laying lifeless as blood pools from his head and he resembles the train worker from earlier, in essence resembling himself; the trance; he wasn’t staring at the train worker he was staring at himself, again this is cyclical. One could also say that Jesse is passing the torch in a sense, giving Bob his cross to bear; the notoriety that Bob will receive as result of using that pistol will make him more recognizable, in turn more famous than Jesse James. It should also be stated that Bob is murdered by a “nobody,” apparently obsessed with Jesse James as a result of using that pistol. 

An Epilogue To The Absurdity Of Life

Bob and his brother go on the road re-enacting the killing, Bob portraying himself and Charlie; his brother portraying Jesse. Ironically though, Bob is the one who throughout the film WANTS to be Jesse James, if not in personality, in reverence. Also something to note, Bob is more confident in pretending to be himself on stage than he is actually being himself. 

To bring this to a wrap because frankly, we could probably find endless interpretations, and probably will come back to revisit the dynamic between these two characters as well as other aspects of the film as a whole.

In the eyes of the world that Robert Ford(Bob) and Jesse James occupy, Jesse was a God murdered by a nobody who they deemed as a coward because of their “love” for a man they didn’t know. Bob himself is in turn murdered by a nobody who is considered a hero; he will be pardoned as a result of a petition. In the end all three of these men achieve some level of notoriety, evoking different reactions to varying degrees for fundamentally being the same thing, MURDERERS. 

What is the difference between fame, divinity and delusion? Is there a difference? And does any of it matter? 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: