The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford



The beginning of the film features the narrator giving a detailed speech introducing many facts and legends about American Old West outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt), some of which are fictitious. This film tries to debunk as many of the myths commonly attributed to James as possible, and focuses its attention on the flaws of hero worship and celebrity in the 19th century. Aside from Jesse, the film also tells the story of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a seemingly insecure young man who has grown up idolizing Jesse James and is often seen as a coward by those around him. Bob seeks out his hero in the middle of a forest in Blue Cut, Missouri where the James gang is staging a train robbery. Bob makes petty attempts to join the gang with the help of his brother Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), who has been a recruit for a while now. Jesse allows Bob to take part in the train robbery to try to prove himself, but Jesse’s brother Frank James (Sam Shepard) sees right through him, saying that Bob hasn’t the ingredient to become a member in their gang. The robbery is a success, but ends up being the last robbery committed by the James brothers. Afterward, Frank decides to retire from crime and settle east in Baltimore, leaving his brother to lead the gang by himself. Jesse does not mind Bob’s presence at first, and begins to have Bob tag along where ever he goes. Gradually, Bob forms a complex love/hate relationship with Jesse, still admiring him to the point of obsession, but also becoming resentful and somewhat fearful due to Jesse’s bullying nature. Jesse begins to acknowledge Bob’s awkwardness and unusual fanaticism, and sends him away as a result.

The gang members have gone their separate ways after their last train robbery. From this point on, Bob still wants to get involved in the gang as he starts to familiarize himself with the other recruits, who often stay at the farmhouse of Martha Bolton (Alison Elliott), the elder sister of the Ford siblings. Jesse’s cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) also stays there, and often uses Jesse’s status to justify his bossiness towards Bob, with which Bob finds a great disliking to. Wood apparently has a love interest in Martha, but Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) frequently gets in a his way. Dick, who is perhaps the most highly educated member in the gang, has a reputation for being a womanizer. During Dick and Wood’s stay in the latter’s home in Kentucky, Dick creates a grudge against Wood by defiling his stepmother Sarah Hite (Kailin See). Dick escapes back to the farmhouse for refuge.

In exchange for a partnership, one day Dick reveals to Bob that he is in cahoots with Jim Cummins, an elusive gang member conspiring to capture Jesse for a bounty. Jim Cummins’ character is never actually seen on screen but he is referenced to multiple times throughout the film to add to the effect of Jesse’s paranoia. Jesse likes to take to calling in on his old gang, stopping by their homes from one to another, so he decides to pay a visit to Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), another former gang member who is seen as thick-headed and shy and very poor with words. Information about Jim Cummins’ plot accidentally slips out of Ed’s mouth. Thus, Jesse lures Ed deep into the woods and kills him for acting so agitatedly during their conversation earlier, and quickly goes on a hunt for Jim. Jesse brings Dick along for the hunt, and the two head to Jim Cummins’ farm. At the farm, they meet Albert Ford, the young cousin of Robert and Charley Ford. Although Albert knows nothing about Jim’s whereabouts, Jesse violently beats the child, further revealing his aggressive and troubled mind-set. Dick stops Jesse in an attempt to prevent further harm to the boy. Jesse weeps, confused about his actions, and rides away on his horse to regather himself.

As Wood returns from Kentucky to the Bolton farmhouse, he encounters Dick, and the two get into a heated gun battle in the middle of the upstairs bedroom. The presence of Wood awakens the Fords. Charley jumps out of a window to dodge the gunfire, and Robert cowers away in his bed. Wood and Dick continue shooting at each other. Dick quickly runs out of ammunition, and is immobilized by a shot to the leg. But when Wood is just about to put a bullet in his head, Bob remembers his agreement with Dick earlier about their partnership. Bob draws his pistol and shoots Wood from behind, killing him, before Wood can pull the trigger. They attempt to bury Wood’s body in a ditch and form a plan to conceal this event from Jesse. Jesse then re-emerges one night to pays a visit to the Fords. As Jesse eats dinner with them, Bob behaves rather anxiously in his presence, and Jesse notices this immediately. Jesse then tells Bob a brief story about another man he had killed for betraying him, and explains how Bob slightly reminds him of that man. Bob, now humiliated, throws a fit and miserably leaves the room, while Jesse and Charley plan a trip to St. Joseph, Missouri, where Jesse currently resides with his family. At St. Joseph, Jesse learns of Wood’s disappearance.

Bob’s respect for Jesse begins to diminish, and his hatred towards his hero grows further and further, as he realizes the nickle books about Jesse he had read during his childhood have little resemblance to the Jesse he now knows. Consequently, Bob tries to get back at Jesse by talking Dick into turning himself in to the police. By doing this, Bob proves his allegiance with the James Gang. Dick then gives a full confession for his participation in Wood Hite’s murder and agrees to take all the blame for it. And in order to save themselves, Liddil discloses everything he knows about the James Gang’s robberies. While Dick remains in the custody of the police, Bob strikes up a deal with Governor Crittenden (James Carville), and the Fords are to capture or assassinate Jesse James in ten days or less for a bounty of $10,000. Meanwhile, on the way back from St. Joseph, a wearisome Jesse talks to Charley about his desire to commit suicide. Charley then successfully convinces Jesse to take Bob in under his wing.

By now, Robert and Charley Ford are the only active members in the gang other than Jesse. He keeps a close eye on the brothers, prohibiting them from going anywhere without him. The brothers move in with Jesse to his home in St. Joseph, where they stay with Jesse’s wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) and their two children. One night in the living room, Jesse invites the Fords to take part in the robbery of the Platte City bank. He re-enacts the way he’ll cut the cashier’s throat, and demonstrates this by holding a knife to Bob’s neck. Jesse then gives a violent monologue about the way he’ll execute the cashier and pulls away leaving Bob shaken and visibly in tears. Even though Jesse treats this jokingly at first, he stops his laughter abruptly just as to embarrass Bob even further. Jesse walks out of the room while the Fords look at each other in concern, overwhelmed with the fear of being killed by him. It has become evident that Jesse has succumbed to delusion–his behavior becoming more erratic and unpredictable with every passing day. From time to time, Jesse even “prophesizes” Bob’s betrayal. Jesse is never out of reach from his guns, and has proven this on more than one occasion. Even when he appears to be asleep, he can be awaken at the slightest sounds. Given these circumstances, Bob decides killing him would be the safest solution. But even as Jesse appears inhuman in the way he acts, he speaks to Bob about how his behavior is almost becoming a problem for himself, and that he often feels helpless and suicidal. As a way to apologize for his actions, Jesse gives Bob a brand new pistol.

On the day of the assassination, both Ford boys wrestle with the task they have been given, especially Charley, who has long considered Jesse as one of his closest friends. Jesse comes home after a walk with his son, and heads to the kitchen for breakfast, throwing the newspaper onto the living room couch. Moments later, while everybody else is preparing to eat, Robert walks pass the living room towards the kitchen when he suddenly notices the paper on the couch with the headline “The Arrest and Confession of Dick Liddil”. Without a second thought, Bob slips the portion of the newspaper under a shawl on the couch, obscuring it from vision, then sits himself down at the kitchen table after strapping on his gun. Immediately, Jesse gets up and grabs the paper from the couch, and has no trouble finding the missing pages mysteriously hidden under the shawl. He sits himself back down again to stir his coffee while he reads, inevitably learning of Dick’s confession for murdering Wood Hite. Jesse glares at the Ford brothers, growing increasingly suspicious of them for never reporting this matter to him. By now, it seems Jesse has no doubt in his mind that they are there to betray him. The three head into the living room individually in preparation for the trip to Platte City. Bob is the first to get up, and he retreats to the living room rocking chair, panic-stricken. Charley follows Bob into the living room to strap on his gun. Jesse walks into the room last, but instead of scolding the Fords, he looks out of the window, withdrawn, and hollow. The Fords prepare for the worst, but it appears Jesse is withholding his wrath due to the presence of his wife and children. After some silent contemplation, seemingly knowing his time has come and accepting it, Jesse takes off his gun belt and lays it on the couch, as a final gesture to try to prove to himself that he truly trusts them, and that whatever is about to happen to him is only a figment of his imagination. For the first time in his life, Bob sees Jesse gunless. Jesse turns around, and blankly stares at the dusty picture of a horse above the mantle, then in a fluid motion climbs up a chair to dust it, even though the picture is easily reachable standing. Unfortunately for Jesse, what he hopes to be his imagination is about to become a reality, as Robert Ford takes advantage of this opportunity to makes his move. Jesse watches in the reflection of the picture as Bob draws his gun and shoots him in the back of the head–the force of the bullet causing Jesse’s head to smash into the picture. The sound of Jesse’s body plummeting to the floor radiates throughout the whole house. Zee rushes to the living room, and mournfully wails at the sight of her husband’s lifeless body. The Fords escape the house to wire the governor about the news.

After the assassination, Robert Ford becomes a celebrity and ends up in a theater show, re-enacting the assassination night after night with his brother playing James, now taking all of the credit for being the sole assassin of Jesse James. Charley’s cheerfulness that so well identified his humanity is not noticeable in his voice anymore. It seems to everybody else, even Charley, that Bob shows no remorse for killing Jesse, who would always deny the allegations of cowardice. In contrast, Charley becomes tormented by what he’s done, questioning why he did what he did, and wrote letters to Mrs. Zee James begging her forgiveness–none of which he mailed. Overwhelmed with despair, Charley eventually kills himself alone in his apartment. Something begins to strike Bob. Instead of Jesse James being remembered as a criminal and a murderer, he is now idealized as a Robin Hood-like hero. Ford on the other hand is openly shunned by the public and is branded a cowardly traitor. At times of anger, Bob dreams of visiting the families of Jesse James’ victims, in hopes of reminding himself that what he did was not in vain, but for the benefit of the people. In a constant struggle to liberate himself from his guilt, Bob gives in to alcoholism, frequenting local taverns only to make a fool of himself. He later becomes romantically involved with a beautiful singer named Dorothy Evans (Zooey Deschanel), who would have long conversations with Bob in hopes of providing comfort to him. In the later years of his life, Bob moves to Colorado to set up a saloon in the little mining town of Creede, still unsure about his own destiny. In the final scene of the film, he is sought out by a man named Edward O’Kelley, while the narrator gives the memorable epilogue, which almost sounds like an obituary Bob had written for himself:

He was ashamed of his persiflage, his boasting, his pretensions of courage and ruthlessness; he was sorry about his cold-bloodedness, his dispassion, his inability to express what he now believed was the case–that he truly regretted killing Jesse, that he missed the man as much as anybody, and wished his murder hadn’t been necessary. Even as he circulated his saloon, he knew that the smiles disappeared when he passed by. He received so many menacing letters that he could read them without any reaction except curiosity. He kept to his apartment all day, flipping over playing cards, looking at his destiny in every King and Jack. Edward O’Kelley came up from Bachelor at one P.M. on the 8th. He had no grand scheme; no strategy; no agreement with higher authorities; nothing beyond a vague longing for glory, and a generalized wish for revenge against Robert Ford. Edward O’Kelley would be ordered to serve a life sentence in the Colorado Penitentiary for second degree murder. Over seven thousand signatures would eventually be gathered on a petition asking for O’Kelley’s release, and in 1902, Governor James B. Orman would pardon the man. There would be no eulogies for Bob; no photographs of his body would be sold in sundries stores; no people would crowd the streets in the rain to see his funeral cortege; no biographies would be written about him; no children named after him; no one would ever pay twenty-five cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in. The shotgun would ignite, and Ella Mae would scream, but Robert Ford would only lay on the floor and look at the ceiling, the light going out of his eyes, before he could find the right words.


This was not what I expected. When I decided to watch this film, I was expecting a Western, not a drama. Although I was disappointed in the direction they chose to go, I admit that I did like this film.

There are quite a few places that seem to drag on forever, especially at the beginning, but once it gets going, the movie is very enjoyable.

My other complaint is the ending. After the assassination happens, the film shifts to Robert Ford, and with good reason, but it feels like they want to start a whole new movie when all they have to do is just say the basic stuff about what happened. There really was no reason to drag out the film for another good 30 min or so. Also, the last line of the film has the narrator saying something about Robert Ford’s last words, then the end credits start rolling. WTF?!?

 The acting in this film is superb. I would never have penned Brad Pitt as Jesse James, but then I wouldn’t have chosen him as Achilles, either. Casey Affleck may be an even better actor than his brother. There is no doubt in my mind why this film was nominated for so many awards.

A little more dramatic picture than I care to watch, but still a good film.

4 out of 5 stars


One Response to “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford”

  1. Billy the kid Says:

    The last line in the movie is saying the lights were going out (he died) before he could find the right words.

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