Jesse James was a robber. Or maybe he was a father. Perhaps he was a leader first, one who could summon a ragtag coalition whenever he had a new plan to pull off. When you become a legendary figure like this man, facts tend to get lost in the stew of history. Facts become fiction, legends become reality, and humans become gods. Writer/Director Andrew Dominic decides to tackle such a complicated and iconic character by framing him as a human, and nothing more. Dominik’s filmmaking and Brad Pitt‘s performance as this outlaw, among many other qualities, sheds the layers of legend to reveal the deeply vulnerable individual with that inevitable name, Jesse James.
The more realistic approach to portraying this character becomes apparent early in the runtime of Robert Ford with a sequence of Jesse James leading his boys in a train robbery. Maximalist visual flourishes or film techniques that could suggest infatuation with what is seen are strictly avoided. Instead, the dim lighting (nicely executed by the cameraman Roger Deakins) and the lack of orchestral music underscore the realism of this sequence. This isn’t a flashy display of badass boasting. James is human and he works with characters who are as vulnerable as he is.
During this attempt to rob the train, things go almost completely wrong when shots are fired which eventually belong not to the cops but to some of James’ men after they get nervous. Even the possibility of a dramatic conflict turns out to be the result of deeply rooted mishaps. Meanwhile, a violent confrontation with a person guarding the money on the train causes James to have a disagreement with one of his cohorts, another example of inconsistent behavior in what should be a well-oiled heist machine. It’s a wonder James and his men could even board the train, let alone rob it.
This sequence depicts the type of behavior and actions that shaped the legend of James as 19th-century American Robin Hood. However, in the eyes of this film, stealing the loot from that train is not a display of glorious cunning, but a farce that could barely walk two feet without stumbling. It’s a microcosm of how Robert Ford reveals the realistic rough edges of who Jesse James was as a person. He is not a masterful god-like figure, even when he partakes in his notorious crimes, let alone in his everyday actions. This is one of the most glaring ways this feature has eroded the overall pop culture perception of Jesse James, although it’s far from the only example of this trait.
Similarly, Brad Pitt’s portrayal of James isn’t that of a wily strategist or deadly killing machine, but as someone far more complicated than that. Shortly after that train robbery, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) wanders over to James, who is sitting in a chair with a snake wrapped around his arm. It’s an odd sight, but it’s far from the only instance of James attempting inexplicable behavior. Equally memorable is how often James is portrayed as paranoid rather than master of his wits. With the law surrounding him, James doesn’t know who to trust and isn’t good at hiding it.
This reaches its climax when James tries to learn about the whereabouts of a former colleague, pushes a child to the ground and starts beating them. It’s a brutal scene, even before James threatens to cut off the boy’s ear. The missing score, unflinching camerawork and precise editing here, not to mention the on-frame performances, all coalesce to make an important point: James isn’t as good at this outlaw gig as his reputation might suggest. Instead of demonstrating cunning, he bemoans an adolescent boy who tells James how wrong his interrogation tactics were. Even a child can see how far James has gotten lost. The man’s pathetic paranoia drove him to commit atrocities that further highlights the discrepancy between the legend of James and who he was as a person.
Between outbursts of odd acts and ongoing paranoia, Pitt also portrays James as suffering from abrupt mood swings and wistful behavior that evoke traits associated with mental disorders. If James were alive today, he might be diagnosed with bipolar disorder or something similar. In 2022, he was able to access drugs and other tactics to help him live with those traits. But in the 19th century, when Robert Ford takes place, there are often no names for these mental states, let alone ways of dealing with them. Pitt’s restrained but effective channeling of such states brings a silent tragedy to the character of James, a man who can escape the law but not the messes in his own head.
Part of why Pitt’s portrayal of James, who may suffer from these disorders, doesn’t come off as cheap or exploitative is because Dominik’s script refuses to pigeonhole the character. James is a killer, but he’s also a father who shows genuine compassion for his children. He even ends up having a real, if strained, affection for Robert Ford and his brother, stemming from seeing them as the only two people he can trust in a world gone haywire . Incorporating these nuances makes James a particularly intimidating character: you never know when he’ll slit someone’s throat or offer a hug, but they also allow him to thrive as another person.
Also the last 20 minutes Robert Ford which took place after the eponymous assassination, emphasize that Jesse James was an ordinary person. After the death of this criminal, Robert Ford begins starring in a stage production about how he shot Jesse James. This is how the notorious reputation of the two men begins to blossom. James is now viewed as a martyr whose death is exploited for financial gain, while Ford is infamous as a cowardly killer who shot and killed a trusted comrade. Such was their reputation that they eventually came to be known as a staple of folk songs, not flesh and blood.
By emphasizing these developments Robert Ford not only shows the audience how the legend of Jesse James came about. The film also reinforces the vulnerability and humanity of Jesse James. Described in loving melodies, the version of this robber is not the same character that either Robert Ford or the viewer knew. All of James’ intricacies, down to the number of children he has, have been removed for such tenuous purposes as making certain words in a song rhyme. Dwelling on the version of James portrayed in post-death mythology helps emphasize James’ recognizable human flaws when he was above ground.
We cannot control how others perceive us after we die. Sometimes heroes become villains, sometimes monsters are perceived as heroes. It’s one of the many uncertainties involved in the inevitable process of dying. In the case of Jesse James, the legend of a train thief shot down in his prime has ensured his legacy will be mythical. It’s hard to say whether James would have wanted that or not. Perhaps the idea of this mythological figure that goes on and on sounded appealing to him. Then again, maybe he just wanted to be known as a father, an occasional friend. All the uncertainty associated with dying makes it impossible to say.
But what is certain is that The assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford makes great strides in attempting to portray the titular outlaw as an ordinary soul prone to outbursts of paranoia-informed evil and quiet contemplation. Even the footage of James wistfully looking out of the window speaks to this intricate portrayal. Pitt’s sad look in these images suggests that the character is searching for a horizon that will bring him the kind of inner satisfaction that money and bullets can never achieve, while he understands, if only in the back of his mind, that such a horizon will never come. That’s the kind of thought process that belongs to mortal man, not some godlike predator of the South.
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https://collider.com/assassination-of-jesse-james-humanizes-an-outlaw-legend/ How the murder of Jesse James humanized an outlaw legend