How Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s Music Haunted ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward…

Jesse James Deakins
By  · Published on December 5th, 2013

How Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s Music Haunted ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’

The idea of robbing banks and trains should conjure up images of brazen cowboys and the spaghetti western music of Ennio Morricone, but instead, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford depicts a stark world left in the wake of these famed outlaws, full of melancholy and restlessness. Jesse James has a very distinctive look and feel thanks to the cinematography, the acting from the film’s two leads and the costumes – all of which give Jesse James an almost mournful tone.

There’s one other element that solidifies that dirge-evoking spirit. The film may have come out six years ago, but with a revival screening poised to take place this weekend, it felt time to revisit Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score, a work which embraces the mystery and magic that is the story of Jesse James as it is told through the unreliable perspective of its narrator Bob Ford (Casey Affleck).

For a start, there’s the dream-like theme that sounds reminiscent of a child’s music box which begins the film and introduces us not only to Jesse James (Brad Pitt), but also the mythical way Bob views him. Hugh Ross’ narration is matter-of-fact as he describes Jesse, but “Song for Jesse” suggests a deep haunting underneath the music’s light notes and the question curiously becomes whether that feeling belongs to Jesse – or to Bob – or to both.

Bob clearly idolizes Jesse and the score seems rooted in this feeling of fantasy and hero worship. Driven primarily by strings and piano, Cave and Ellis’ music is beautiful, but also stridently off-putting. As Jesse becomes increasingly unpredictable, the music follows suit as it seesaws from light to dark and Bob’s perspective on the man changes. The one constant is the solemn tonality the music consistently stems from as we watch both Jesse and Bob struggle to come to terms with where they fit in their changing world.

Even when Jesse and his gang hold up a train (the typical, high adventure beat) at the beginning of the film, the music is never boastful or driving. It is instead weary, giving the impression that the James brothers are coming to the end of their adventures well before Frank states the fact out loud. The robbery itself is met with sorrowful strings rather than adrenaline-filled percussion. Cave and Ellis’ score always feels more restless than suspenseful, even in these climactic moments, making the anticipation of the film stem from what is actually going on in the mind’s of these men rather than their outward actions.

This feeling is also thanks to the fact that much of Jesse James is without music, lingering in the quiet and letting the aching silence speak for itself. Even during scenes of conversation, the score rarely plays to the background, keeping these interactions as stripped down as the look of the film. However, one notable scene between Jesse and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) has the theme follow Jesse as he enters the room and continue to play over their exchange. Jesse and Frank clearly have a strained relationship and do not speak a word to each other during this moment, expressing themselves only through their eyes and facial tics, but the fact that this is one of the rare moments where music plays over a scene suggests a deeper, unspoken bond between the brothers.

Outside of this scene, the score never plays on its own, always accompanying the narration or the film’s scenic transitions. But when Jesse takes on the role of narrator, the music stops.

When Ross’ voice comes in with the music, it feels like air is let back into the room as the dreamy feeling established at the beginning of the film is recalled. This lack of music (when Jesse himself is telling the tale) is an interesting comment on the world Bob creates versus the world Jesse actually lives in.

In Jesse James’s final scenes, the music goes from solemn notes to ones that are blatantly dissonant, a cue that the fairytale may be ending. Cave and Ellis’ score becomes more aggressive and stops riding the line between light and dark to settle on the dark. “Song for Bob,” unlike “Song for Jesse,” is mournful and suggests not only the end of Robert Ford himself, but the official end of his fantasy and idealized vision of his hero. This illusion seems definitively broken when Cave himself is featured on screen as a saloon singer crooning “The Ballard of Jesse James” which distinctly mocks Bob and how he and Jesse truly measured up in the end (at least in the eyes of the “public”).

Cave and Ellis’ score for Jesse James is both beautiful and sad, successfully embracing the world director Andrew Dominik created without overpowering it. While certainly dream-like, the score constantly seems to be waiting to be undone, much like the two men at the center of the film. Jesse James gives the appearance of a man who says what he thinks and always lets people know where they stand, but there is a sadness and mystery behind his eyes that is never fully explained. Robert Ford is an oddly anxious man who never quite answers the question Jesse poses to him about whether he wants to be like him, or actually be him. As these two men eventually collide into one another, the truth of who they really are is never fully revealed, but it is wonderfully, hauntingly hinted at throughout the score.

The soundtrack for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is available on iTunes and Amazon.

The Jesse James Revival kicks off on Saturday, December 7th at the Museum of the Moving Image. Be sure to check out other Jesse James appreciations at The Film Stage, HitFix, Ain’t It Cool News, and throughout this week.

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