Though the possible motivations behind Ford’s deep admiration for James have been a topic of debate since the film’s release, little attention, unfortunately, has been paid to the shared relationship between Jesse James (Brad Pitt), Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), and Robert’s older brother, Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell); a relationship that, when examined more closely, reads as a love triangle that utilizes mythic ideology, fraternal jealousy, and unrequited queer love to make a larger statement about the state of the American West near the close of the twentieth century.
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The love triangle is a narrative trope that is captivating as it is well-worn, and with good reason. Though it is a titillating concept on the surface (Will there be a fight? Will someone get killed? Who gets the guy/girl? Will they even reciprocate?), it’s also a structure that’s easy to replicate without repeating due to the countless directions in which it can go.
Two characters uninterested in one another could desire the same third party. Three parties all in love with one another can fight their own confusions about those feelings. A happy couple could struggle with advances from an interested third character. Queer characters could get involved, as could unrequited love, marriage, the custody of children, or customs of certain genres. Though the trope is structured, it isn’t necessarily rigid, as the possibilities to play within this narrative space are endless.
But in 2007, Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik would take this trope in a direction previously unexplored when he released the film that would gain him his auteur status: the revisionist western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, based on Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name. Though the film – being nearly three hours long and relying on a slower, more intellectual tone than the rollicking action westerns of the twentieth century – would lose money at the box office, it was an immediate hit with critics and cinephiles, with special attention paid to the performances, the cinematography, and the uniquely realistic depiction of hero worship in the Old West.
The film is a fictionalized chronicle of the murder of the titular outlaw (James) by the man who grew up his greatest admirer (Ford), beginning when the two cross paths and ending years after the eponymous deed has been carried out. Though the possible motivations behind Ford’s deep admiration for James have been a topic of debate since the film’s release, little attention, unfortunately, has been paid to the shared relationship between Jesse James (Brad Pitt), Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), and Robert’s older brother, Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell); a relationship that, when examined more closely, reads as a love triangle that utilizes mythic ideology, fraternal jealousy, and unrequited queer love to make a larger statement about the state of the American West near the close of the twentieth century.
When the film begins, we’re dropped into the setup of the latest in a string of robberies by the infamous James gang, a team led by Jesse James, his brother, Frank (Sam Shepard) and their cousin, Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), along with the Ford brothers, their friend Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), and a patchwork team of other lowlife outlaws hired by the James brothers to carry out a train robbery in Blue Cut, Missouri. Though Charley, Wood, and Dick have run with Jesse and Frank before, this is Robert’s first exposure to his childhood hero. In addition to having the chance to meet and speak with him before the robbery commences, he also witnesses Jesse put his ear to the railroad to detect the coming train, stop the train in its tracks, and rob it blind with almost no resistance from the crew or the passengers. In other words, Robert Ford witnesses Jesse James acting as the legend that he had always believed him to be; within the first thirty minutes of the film, a certain foundation has been laid that will slowly crumble over the course of the remaining two hours.
But the final love triangle of Jesse, Robert, and Charley is not the only love triangle that exists in the film; and although the foundation for Robert Ford’s love triangle is just being laid, a long-established one is crumbling for Jesse James. When the gang finally does hit paydirt, Jesse and Frank realize that the take from the heist is considerably smaller than what they were expecting to make, and Frank makes the decision to part with his brother. When Charley meets with Frank in an attempt to obtain permanent membership with the James gang for him and Robert, Frank tells him, “After tonight, there will be no more shenanigans. Jot that down in your little diary. September 7th, 1881, the James Gang robbed one last train at Blue Cut and gave up their night-riding for good.” Though we, the viewer, understand that Jesse is not finished with the life of an outlaw, we interpret Frank’s sole intention for this statement is to separate from his brother. As the conversation moves forward, though, we learn that the situation is a bit more complicated.
“How are you gonna make your living?” Charley asks, to which Frank replies, nonchalantly, “Maybe I’ll sell shoes.” This exchange renders Frank a character not at the end of a path but on a divergent one. Whereas he was in a love triangle, of sorts, with 1) his brother and 2) the promise of capital, he has decided not to abandon both but to choose one over the other; that is, choosing steady income over his brother instead of juggling both. The finality of this decision becomes apparent when we realize that after this scene, Frank James will not be seen or heard from again for the remainder of the film.
This is the event that sets in motion the slow downfall that the rest of the narrative will portray, as the shift in Jesse’s mood, motivation, and actions is immediate. Where he was as cool and as effective as advertised during the scene in which the gang robs the train, he’ll spend the rest of the film paranoid, violent, and sickly in appearance. With his brother no longer in the picture, Jesse is still free to pursue the capital that he has spent his life pursuing, but his shift in emotional status clues us in to how clearly his satisfaction came from being a party in the abstract love triangle between himself, his brother, and their pursuit of capital. Now that he is simply in a two-party relationship – one lacking the fraternal element – he scrambles to fill that hole as quickly as possible.
So quickly, in fact, that the process would begin in the very next scene, where Jesse and Robert gather on the front porch of Jesse’s home to have a post-robbery cigar. Robert, as childlike as ever, says “I can’t believe I woke up this morning wondering if my daddy would loan me his overcoat, and here it is just past midnight, and I’ve already robbed a railroad train and I’m sitting here in a rocking chair chatting with none other than Jesse James.” While Robert’s first remarks to Jesse involve his own admiration of Jesse’s legend, Jesse’s response isn’t nearly as enthusiastic, as he stares at the ground and nonchalantly states, “Yeah, it’s a wonderful world.”
Still, Jesse refrains from brushing Robert off. Though there is a beat of silence between the two, Jesse looks up and stares at Robert in a manner that could be considered both expectant and curious. When Robert speaks up, he asks Jesse if he wants him to read a newspaper clipping that he had on him “to tell [Jesse and Frank] apart.” Where he balked at Jesse’s praise earlier, he now smiles and encourages Jesse to recite it.
This shift could be interpreted in a few ways; perhaps Jesse, riding the high of the robbery and the tobacco, simply wants Robert to feel comfortable. Maybe Jesse enjoys praise from those not in his immediate vicinity. Maybe he truly enjoys Robert’s company. But more than anything, it is difficult to overlook the fact that Jesse comes back out of his shell upon the mention of him and his brother in the same sentence, let alone the same newspaper article. For the moment, that love triangle exists once again – even if it is on the page and not in reality.
But as Robert reads, things begin to change. As he begins the article, it becomes quite clear that it is almost entirely about Jesse, describing his appearance, build, and attitude in great detail. This reading elicits very minor reactions from Jesse, up until the compliments become too bountiful and he urges Robert to stop reading. In the same moment that Jesse makes his intentions clear – that he has no interest in hearing writing about himself alone – Robert makes it clear that this was, in turn, the only thing he cared for. “Well, yeah, then it’s just Frank Frank Frank. That’s nothing. And then. . . .”
Robert trails off before noticing that Jesse, unexpectedly, looks relatively downtrodden. There is an awkward silence before Robert, desperate for a way back in, begins to ramble about all of the literature on the James Gang that he has always kept by his bed for late-night reading. Though this brings a smile to Jesse’s face, he says, “They’re all lies, you know,” to which Robert replies, “Yeah, of course they are,” with faux-understanding and an awkward exhale of cigar smoke.
And here is the moment when the wheels begin to turn; Jesse, still staring at Robert, kindly tells him, “You don’t have to keep smoking that if it’s making you bungey.” Robert, without a word, takes the cigar out of his mouth and throws it away.
It is in this moment – one in which Jesse 1) notices something that Robert has not vocalized and 2) shows him a certain kindness – that Jesse makes two different transitions; in one way, he moves from the fraternal role of younger sibling receiving instruction to that of the older brother imparting wisdom. Additionally, though, Jesse also makes the jump from one fraternal love triangle to another. If Jesse has retained his relationship with the pursuit of capital, his plan to replace Frank with Robert becomes turnkey – especially when he sends Charley, Dick, and Wood Hite – his own blood relative – away from his home the next morning and asks Robert to stick around to help him move from one house to another.
Though the two grow closer and Robert grows even fonder of Jesse during their time together, a conflict arises that ultimately gets Robert sent home as well, all the while giving the viewer a glimpse into Jesse’s psychological state as well as undertones of queer love within Robert. To summarize the time that the two spend together (as well as allow the viewer a peek into Robert’s motivation), the film’s narrator (Hugh Ross) gives us a quick setup for that conflict: “[Robert] went everywhere with Jesse. They made trips to the Topeka Exchange Saloon where Jesse could spend nearly sixty minutes sipping one glass of beer and still complain about feeling tipsy. [Robert] would rarely vouchsafe his opinions as they talked. If spoken to, he would fidget and grin. If Jesse palavered with another person, [Robert] secretaried their dialogue, getting each inflection, reading every gesture and tic as if he wanted to compose a biography of the outlaw or as if he were preparing an impersonation.”
Though Jesse’s childlike admiration for James is apparent, his actions can also be read as homoerotic when paired with what I believe to be the film’s true turning point. One day, when Jesse is taking a bath in his new home, Robert sneaks to the doorway to watch him after hearing a loud cough from Jesse. Though he may have approached to check in on Jesse’s well-being, this is the first time that Jesse’s physical body has been a point of visual tension. Robert leans in the doorway, staring at Jesse’s back – emitting steam and sporting a large scar on his left shoulder – and combed, slicked-back hair. Robert arrives on the screen without making any noise or saying any words, suggesting that his intentions for this interaction were strictly voyeuristic of Jesse’s body.
Still, Jesse notices Robert’s presence. “Go away,” he mutters as Robert’s face starts with surprise before falling in defeat. He plays the moment off with a compliment that could be entirely harmless: “Used to be couldn’t no one sneak up on Jesse James,” to which Jesse replies “Now you think otherwise.” Seeing a way into the conversation, Robert dives in: “I ain’t never seen you without your guns, neither.” After a deep sigh, Jesse reaches for his towel, revealing that there was a gun hiding underneath it. Robert, downtrodden again, can do nothing but listen as Jesse gets cross with him. Turning his head to look in Robert’s direction for the first time in the conversation, he says, “I can’t figure it out. Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?” before the narrator promptly tells us that Robert was sent away the next day.
In turn, what may seem like an exchange in which a hero gets frustrated with an avid admirer digs so much deeper. What Robert meant as subject-changing compliments – suggesting that it was, in the past, impossible to sneak up on Jesse as well as the pointing out that Jesse has always had a gun on him – come across as backhanded compliments on the surface. Robert’s use of the vocabulary of “used to be” suggests that there was once a more sufficient version of Jesse – the version that actively participated in the Jesse-Frank-Capital love triangle. This stings Jesse, as it suggests that he is failing 1) outside of a love triangle, 2) without his brother by his side, and 3) as an older brother instead of a younger one, causing Jesse to insult Robert and send him away from his home.
The conversation, though – in addition to insulting Jesse and hinting at a certain shortcoming on Jesse’s part – also highlights the queer undertones of Robert’s character alongside his general behavior. In mentioning his success in sneaking up on Jesse, Robert is building himself up in addition to paying the backhanded compliment; not only can Jesse be snuck up on, but Robert feels that he himself is the only one sneaky enough to do it. In commenting on Jesse’s lack of a weapon in the present moment, he builds up both himself and Jesse’s relationship; though Jesse has always had a gun on him, Robert feels that he has a stronger relationship with Jesse than anyone ever has, strong enough to put his guns away around Robert. Though Robert has always tried to sell himself to Jesse as a friend, the fact that he continues to push forward given the homoerotic tensions of the moment suggests that he is now selling himself to Jesse as a potential partner.
Similarly, his comments are vaguely sexually charged in their syntax. To mention that no one has ever snuck up on Jesse – that is, in a vulnerable and naked position – suggests that Jesse has never been in a same-sex relationship. To immediately point out his lack of a gun likewise accentuates Jesse’s nakedness. However, the audience and Jesse suggest to Robert just how unrequited these feelings are. As an audience, we know that Robert did not actually sneak up on Jesse, as Jesse calls Robert out without hearing or seeing him. A very brief moment later, he lifts his towel from the table beside the tub and, in one fell swoop, moves to dry and cover himself while also revealing the gun that he had hidden.
In this moment, Robert is – nonviolently – defeated, but Jesse is following close behind. Robert’s next step is going to live with his brother and widowed sister, Martha (Alison Elliot), who are also housing Dick Liddil. Meanwhile, Jesse continues to live with his family and tie up loose ends around the robbery. It is in this sequence that we see how the two characters operate when without a love triangle to participate in; during a scuffle between Dick Liddil and Wood Hite (who has tracked Liddil down after he finds out that Liddil slept with his stepmother), Robert shoots and kills Hite and elects to bury him without telling Jesse. Jesse, similarly, travels to the home of Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt) and ends up shooting and killing him on suspicion of a betrayal.
Coincidentally, Robert chose to kill Wood Hite instead of Dick Liddil because Dick told Robert of his involvement with a plan to capture Jesse James and turn him in for a reward; however, he also killed Wood Hite in order to harm a member of Jesse’s family and, indirectly, harm Jesse. This way, Robert gets to have his cake and eat it, too; he harms Jesse without having to face the consequences of doing so, possibly with hopes that it would bring Jesse back around. Meanwhile, Jesse’s murder of Ed Miller illustrates both his newfound paranoia (a paranoia caused by the idea of no longer being able to pursue capital if imprisoned) as well as a cunning that drives the suspense of the narrative even further. In a way, each character is still chasing capital, but both are without the element that they have been seeking since their time together at Jesse’s home.
These are two driving forces that, from here on out, pull the two characters inevitably back toward one another; Jesse without a third party to tackle capital with and Robert without a vessel for his affections whilst chasing that same capital. The third cog, though, comes in the form of Robert’s brother, Charley – the pièce de rèsistance of the third act of the film.
These three characters come together to form the final and deadliest love triangle in the narrative about midway through the film when Jesse arrives at the Bolton household, where the Ford/Bolton clan has hidden Wood Hite’s dead body as well as Dick Liddil’s live one. It is here that the same level of betrayal that Jesse fears is carried out on Robert; when the group is having dinner, Charley attempts to cover up the fact that Wood Hite is dead and Dick Liddil is in hiding by turning the attention of the conversation to Robert. Charley distracts Jesse with stories about Robert’s obsession with Jesse, mocking him in a manner that belittles Robert while building Jesse up. This leads to Jesse choosing to take Charley with him when he leaves the Bolton home and motivates Robert to begin cooperating with the police to capture Jesse.
Though this could be Jesse’s final love triangle (with Charley and capital), Jesse makes it clear that Charley isn’t a fit when he agrees to bring Robert aboard as the third member of an upcoming robbery; this is when the final love triangle takes full force and hurtles toward disaster. At this point in the film, all three of these characters stand at a crossroads; Robert, as an admirer of Jesse but also a sworn enemy; Jesse, as a man desperately in need of a third party to chase capital with but cripplingly paranoid; and Charley as a man who requires his younger brother to be a member of any love triangle he participates in (illustrated by his countless attempts to get Jesse to bring Robert aboard) but without any real motivation for capital.
But ultimately, the actual assassination of Jesse James is a joint decision by all three involved. Once the three have come together, Robert reveals his collusion with the police to Charley, Charley reluctantly agrees to participate, and Jesse’s paranoia deepens into near-schizophrenia. On the morning of the robbery, the three stand locked and loaded in the living room of Jesse’s home, where Jesse discovers – in a newspaper that he bought while out and about with his son – that Dick Liddil has testified to the police and that the Fords are involved.
But what happens next is the most shocking part of the film. Jesse – staring out at his daughter singing in the yard – gives himself up to the Fords without saying as much. “I guess I’ll take my guns off for fear that the neighbors might spy them,” he says as he removes his weapons and drops them on the couch. Even in this moment of acquiescence, Jesse keeps one member of his love triangle – his pursuit of capital with the upcoming robbery – at the forefront of the conversation. Next, he turns toward the brothers before asking “Don’t that picture look dusty?” about a photograph hanging on the wall. Without a look at either of the two, he crosses the room, climbs up onto a stool, and begins busying himself cleaning the picture. It is here that Robert – after much hesitation from both him and Charley – shoots Jesse in the back, killing him.
The title of the film – along with the audience’s general knowledge of American history – does make this moment a foregone conclusion, even going so far as to eradicate all possibilities by naming the assassin himself. In doing so, what becomes most important is the journey taken to get to the conclusion, one in which several characters enter in, remove themselves, and remove others from these abstract love triangles, all of which shatter the moment Jesse James is killed. Robert loses a hero (and possibly a lover), Charley loses a connection to capital, and Jesse loses everything.
But two key decisions are made here. The first is Jesse’s decision to submit, and it’s hard not to read it as a decision made out of grief; in being turned over to the police, Jesse loses all three members of his preferred love triangle (chasing capital, either of the Ford brothers, and his own freedom) and chooses instead to quit on life entirely. A similarly strange decision, though, is for Robert to shoot Jesse instead of turning him in.
Though his and Charley’s paranoia about the prospect of Jesse killing them first is apparent, the true motivation behind Robert’s decision is made clear just a few moments before Jesse’s assassination, when – the day before the assassination – Robert stays behind at the James home while everyone else attends church. During this time, Robert “remained at the cottage and slyly migrated from room to room. He walked into the master bedroom and inventoried the clothes on the hangers and hooks. He sipped on the water glass from the vanity. He smelled the talcum and lilacs on Jesse’s pillowcase. His fingers skittered over his ribs to construe the scars where Jesse was twice shot,” and, most importantly, “He manufactured the middle finger that was missing the top two knuckles,” a feature rendered unique to Jesse at the beginning of the film.
So, at the end of the film – which finds Jesse killed and displayed around the country with Robert and Charley living in Manhattan and repeatedly performing a reenactment of the killing – Robert’s motivation behind the assassination has become clear. Unable to participate in the love triangle between himself, Jesse, and capital, Robert ends up having to make the decision posed to him earlier by Jesse, to “be like me or be me.” Robert ultimately chooses the latter, killing a man (as Jesse had done so many times before), cataloging Jesse’s personality and belongings, and mimicking the love triangle that he had with Jesse (with capital and his brother as the second and third parties) as well as the love triangle that Jesse had before Robert (with his brother Frank as well as capital).
The results, as one would guess, are dire. Charley – who only ever wanted Jesse and Robert in his love triangle, never capital – ends up committing suicide out of guilt for Jesse’s murder, illustrated by the countless letters he writes to Jesse’s wife, Zee (Mary-Louise Parker). Meanwhile, Robert becomes Jesse; infamous, dangerous, and self-assured. But without a third party in his love triangle – just he and capital – things ultimately go awry. The third party – a random citizen named Edward O’Kelley (Michael Copeman) – inserts himself into the triangle the same way Robert did Jesse’s; Edward approaches without Robert’s knowledge, choosing to shoot and kill Robert in a saloon that the latter has opened in Colorado. At the end of the film, human beings have come and gone, and will continue to come and go; the chase of capital, though, will always remain, causing the confusions that hinder relationships – fraternal, queer, homosocial, homoerotic, and beyond.
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All images are screenshots from the film.