│Marek Paryż is Associate Professor and Chair of the Section of American Literature at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw. He is the chief editor of the Polish Journal for American Studies and senior editor of the European Journal of American Studies. His most recent book publication is a co-edited volume of essays on The Post-2000 Film Western.

Surveillance and Paranoia in Andrew Dominik’s Film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Andrew Dominik’s film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an outstanding recent example of the Western genre because of its ways of reinterpreting the American historical process through the use of categories that are highly relevant for the present intellectual horizon. One such category is surveillance. It provides a clue to understanding the complexity of the historical change evoked in the film. This change has to do with the strengthening of the apparatus of administrative supervision and law enforcement, concomitant with the processes of urban and economic development. In Dominik’s film, the theme of surveillance testifies to the efficiency of the institutional establishment the solidification of which, predictably enough, coincides with the shrinking of “wild” spaces, so to speak. The film emphasizes the growing significance of surveillance by ascribing a rather crucial role to a character that does not appear on the screen. Jim Cummins, a former member of the James gang, is suspected of having developed a plan aimed at delivering Jesses James to the authorities. The revelation of Cummins’s scheme provokes Jesse to carry out a series of actions in order to eliminate those of his men who may have been conspiring against him, but Cummins is not among the victims, which exacerbates Jesse’s obsession. The film thus traces his gradual descent into paranoia. Aware that the authorities have been closing in on him, Jesse cannot overcome his paranoid state. He begins to court his own death, and through his behavior he virtually encourages the Ford brothers, who have decided on killing him, to complete their task. Their killing of the former leader could be seen as the accomplishment of Jesse’s suicidal plan, the only way out of the deadlock in which he has found himself.