This post will contain spoilers. I don’t fully subscribe to Switchblade Sisters host April Wolfe’s motto that it’s not what happens but how it happens that makes a movie worth watching because I still prefer not knowing what happens, but The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a film based on historical events that is not by Quentin Tarantino, and it spoils itself right in the title. Although the title card doesn’t appear till the end, the narration informs you that Jesse James is assassinated within the first half hour (of five). Writer-director Andrew Dominik didn’t have to tell the story this way. Despite the structure of Ron Hansen’s novel and Brad Pitt’s insistence that the title not be changed, Dominik could still have constructed the story to be told without providing any foreknowledge apart from history. By deliberately spoiling the audience, he indicates that we are meant to experience the story knowing that Jesse James will be assassinated by Robert Ford, who is a coward.
Thus, the poetic prologue of the movie reads almost like a preemptive eulogy for this mythic hero rather than an introduction to a man whose story is about to begin. This is the beginning of his end, and Dominik reinforces that idea with Frank James, whom we meet in a scene that’s the beginning of Robert Ford’s story but the beginning of the end of Frank’s. Frank drops out of the story right after the ensuing train robbery and is never seen again. We know he’ll learn of his brother’s assassination in Baltimore but aren’t given a timeline, so we don’t know when it will happen in the film. All we know is that Ford has now joined the James gang, a move that initially could be seen as a gathering of intel for the titular assassination but soon becomes clear is an act of pure fanboyism.
Our knowledge that Ford will kill James eventually colors every single interaction they have. Imagine a movie with a different title about fictional characters where an aspiring outlaw meets an infamous legend. We might expect more of a team-up, perhaps a mentorship. I don’t know that “potential assassin” is an intuitive leap with no other context. But then Dominik begins providing that context. Ford kills Hite, James’s cousin, so now he’s got a secret murder hanging over his head. Will James find out? Is that why Ford kills James? The title of the film lingers over every single plot point, making us wonder how and when we will get to that crucial event.
Though every scene between the two men holds the potential to be The Turning Point for Robert Ford, the dinner scene seems to be the most likely candidate. Ford takes his fanboyishness to the next level, highlighting a variety of coincidental similarities between him and Jesse James, and James…makes fun of him. The shine comes off the hero as Ford’s attempt to connect with the man is soundly rebuffed, and it’s not long before we see him go to the authorities.
Dominik makes us wait a very long time for the titular assassination, but when the date of April 3, 1882 appears onscreen, we just know that this is the day it happens. Even if we don’t know it from history, it has been a while since the film has provided a specific date, and the state of Ford and James’s relationship makes it clear that we are finally here. And yet even after we get here, Dominik stretches the chilling, quiet scene out, and it’s incredibly effective even though our anticipation is sky high. He’s primed us for this moment the entire movie, and he’s not going to rush it now. In fact, he even adds a singing child to make it all more unsettling. This continued delay works because Jesse James, like the audience, knows what’s coming. He resigns himself to his fate, comments on the dustiness of a painting, and gets into place, hitting his mark like he’s in a play. Some critics argue that James engineers the entire plot of the movie, knowing a man like him will one day be killed and choosing to ruin the life of the man who does so. If you accept this fascinating read, then you realize in this moment that what you are actually witnessing is the character assassination of the coward Robert Ford by Jesse James, and so the title was not, in fact, a spoiler. Ford shoots James, and it’s happened, finally.
But there’s still movie left, and I find the final section to be the most interesting part of the film and wish it were longer. Here we see how Robert Ford deals with being the man who killed Jesse James. Curiously, right after the murder, Ford claims that he didn’t do it and that it was an accident, but then he absolutely capitalizes on it and turns it into a play, reliving the moment night after night. He plays himself and not James, seemingly answering his victim’s question of “You want to be like me, or you want to be me?” While the play is initially a hit, the audience eventually turns on him, branding him a coward for killing their outlaw hero. The infamous ballad about his misdeed cements his legacy. When Dorothy Evans asks him why he did it, he meekly replies that he was afraid — he had killed Hite and thought James would kill him in retaliation — and also the money — though he didn’t receive what was promised — but is any of that true? This final, most fascinating section certainly seems to indicate that his desire for fame was a key factor, since it’s that fame that ultimately undoes him. But the movie is not called The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Then the Assassination of Robert Ford by the Hero Edward O’Kelley, so the title didn’t spoil everything after all.
I don’t like spoilers, but I love when films successfully spoil themselves by being confident enough in their own storytelling to tell the audience what will happen to remove that concern from their minds and instead allow that ending to hang over everything. Spoiling with intent changes why you are telling the story. Thus Andrew Dominik enhances the tragedy of Jesse James by bringing to the fore the inevitability of his death. He wants you to be sad the whole time, not just when he dies, creating an elegiac and melancholy experience that lingers after the film ends.