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"I look at my red hands and my mean face. And I wonder about that man that's gone so wrong."—Jesse James
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a 2007 American western film, and the second film directed by Andrew Dominick, best known for Chopper. It is based on the 1983 book by Ron Hansen of the same name. Punk rocker Nick Cave provides the soundtrack and appears in a minor role. The film tells the story of the final days of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) as he descends into aimless ennui and murderous paranoia, as well as the rise and fall of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a sycophantic fanboy of James' desperate to make a name for himself.
The film is a Deconstruction of the James myth, as a man normally portrayed in Hollywood as a romantic Robin Hood-esque Anti-Hero is here (much more accurately) shown as a cold, dangerous, paranoid, Ax Crazy lunatic. Meanwhile, the normally villified Robert Ford starts off with an unsettling hero-worship towards James, but gradually becomes disillusioned with - and eventually terrified of - the infamous outlaw.
Despite being a massive critical hit, the movie bombed at the box office. The film is long, scenes are intentionally drawn out, and it goes out of its way to debunk established popular Hollywood History, all of which ran against it. However, the music, cinematography, and especially the perfomances by the two leads (Affleck even got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting) are held in high regard, and it made the Top Ten Movies of the Year of several critical lists (sometimes even topping them).
Tropes present in this work
- Ascended Fanboy: Bob.
- Anti-Hero: Robert Ford kills the famous outlaw, but he's hardly heroic in doing so.
- Anti-Villain: Jesse is a robber, thug and murderer, but he's also something of a tortured soul. He's also confused for a hero by the public.
- The Atoner: Jesse desperately wants to be this, but grimly acknowledges that it is impossible.
- Badass Beard: Wood returns midway through the film looking like a member of ZZ Top.
- Being Evil Sucks: Jesse James is weighed down by the burden of his evil actions. It's implied that he allows the Ford brothers to kill him.
- Bilingual Bonus: A passenger says in Danish, "I don't speak English," when robbed on the train in the beginning. He does know to empty his pockets though.
- Billing Displacement:
- Whether Jesse James or Robert Ford is the "main character" of the film is debatable, considering the amount of screen time and thematic weight each character receives. Though Ford's life extends through the entire film, James is given more weight while he's around. In spite of whatever argument you might make, Brad Pitt's star power, combined with Jesse James', ensure that James is always considered the lead role, even by the Academy Awards.
- Although Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel are billed near the top, neither one has more than a brief cameo.
- Broken Pedestal: Bob is heartbroken when his hero treats him like dirt just as everyone else has all his life. In the dinner scene especially, the shift from childlike admiration to deep seated loathing is nicely conveyed by Casey Affleck.
- California Doubling: Filmed in Winnipeg's Exchange district (which looks sufficiently old, for that matter). Many scenes were also filmed in Fort Edmonton Park in Edmonton, Alberta.
- The Cameo: Nick Cave
- Casanova: Dick Liddil, the smooth-talking, poetry-quoting outlaw who can and will charm any little lady who crosses his path. This becomes a real problem when he charms the wrong lady.
- Dawson Casting: A strange case. Frank James, Jesse's older brother is 38. It's implied that his life as a bandit has been hard on his looks, so maybe he's supposed to look about 50. He was played by Sam Shepard, aged 64 at the time. The 32-year-old Casey Affleck also plays Bob from the age of 20, though the film follows him through the rest of his life. Brad Pitt is also nine years older than Jesse was at the time of his death.
- Death Seeker: Jesse
- Demoted to Extra: Zooey Deschanel's character gives the impression that there was a lot more scenes with her that didn't make the final cut. The section of the film with her in it was originally supposed to be an hour longer.
- Did Not Do the Research: An in-universe example. Jesse and his gang dismiss the stories Bob grew up with as lies that portray him as a virtuous hero
- Driven to Suicide: Charley. Jesse as well, depending on your interpretation.
- Non-Indicative Name: Dick Liddil is actually quite a lady's man, though truth be told we never learn how well he satsifies his conquests.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Dick is appalled at Jesse violently assaulting a child
- Evil Laugh: Jesse James lets out a truly impressive cackle after threatening Charley Ford with a knife and then taunting him about it.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: A subversion. The aim of the movie is to contradict the bias that that the title implies.
- Fate Worse Than Death: For Robert at least before he finally dies. After killing Jesse he has to contend with the contempt of others and his reputation as a coward for 10 years before finally being murdered himself.
- The Gunslinger: Everyone is too afraid to test James' skill with a pistol. Whenever you're around him, you're at his mercy.
- Hero with Bad Publicity: Bob brought it down on himself when he tried to play off the killing as heroic.
- Historical Hero Upgrade/Historical Villain Upgrade: Portrayed within the story, as the legend of Jesse James makes the unstable, murderous outlaw into a hero, while Robert Ford is quickly branded a "coward" and "assassin" for his murder.
- I Just Want to Be Normal: Jesse just wants to have a simple life with his wife and kids but he has been an outlaw for so long he simply doesn't know how.
- I Just Want to Be Special: Bob wants nothing more than to be like the gunslingers he grew up idolising. When he realizes that he cannot become the next Jesse James, he makes his mark by killing the man.
- Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Dick Liddil and Wood Hite's shoot-out is conducted in a cramped bedroom from about a six foot range, yet neither manage to land more than a single insignificant shot. The trope is immediately subverted by Robert Ford, whom we've never seen shoot a gun, when he lands a perfect headshot out of nowhere.
- Instant Death Bullet: Averted. After being shot in the head, Wood Hite is still alive for a few moments.
- Karmic Death: Wood is killed by the man whose toughness he had callously mocked earlier.
- Long Title
- Misaimed Fandom: In-Universe. Jesse James receives this in his life, and it's amplified further after his death. In spite of being a thief and cold-blooded murderer, he's revered as a hero of the people.
- My God, What Have I Done?: After brutally beating a twelve-year-old for information, Jesse breaks down and cries.
- The Narrator: Providing historical context, internal emotions, and sympathy for both Jesse and Robert since 1882.
- Sad Clown: Charley
- Scenery Porn: The movie has some truly gorgeous shots of the countryside.
- Shown Their Work: Praised by historians and James' descendants as more accurate than any other portrayal of him.
- Stalker with a Crush: Robert Ford is characterized as a stalker fanboy of James who eventually murders him when the man does not live up to his legend.
- Stylistic Suck: The Broadway reenactment seen late in the film, mostly due to Charley's terrible acting.
- Suicide by Cop: It's implied that James realized that the Ford brothers wanted to kill him, and turns his back on them to give them the opportunity.
- Tempting Fate: After bullying him, Wood laughs off Bob's threats to put a bullet in his head. Later in the film, Bob does just that.
- The Cast Showoff: She may have had her most of her role cut but Zooey Deschanel gets a song to compensate.
- Train Job: The film begins with a train job in which Jesse beats a man viciously for not cooperating.
- "The Villain Sucks" Song: Subverted by the in-universe example of "The Ballad of Jesse James," a real life song performed by Nick Cave in the film.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Jesse's clearly a psycho, but romanticized dime novels turn him into a Robin Hood figure, and his death cements his legacy.
- The Wild West: A bit of a subversion. The film takes place in a world very much unlike the world in Robert Ford's dime novels. The James Gang has more or less fizzled out by the time the film begins.
- With Friends Like These...: Anyone who is "friends" with James is scared for their life whenever he's around. He bullies them, makes veiled threats, and occasionally even kills them, yet they must always put on a smile. This is implied to be one of the main reasons why Robert Ford eventually kills him.
- Yandere: Robert again, though more of a hero worship than Ho Yay.