There Will Be No Country For Jesse James
An examination of America’s decline through the Neo-Western film genre.
2007 was a period of burgeoning insecurity for the USA — it had been six years since the towers fell (unofficially terminating the American Century), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were looking more and more disastrous by the day, and though the Global Financial Crisis had not fully taken root, the housing market was starting to quiver suspiciously. That supposedly shatterproof American confidence was in the process of a sober reevaluation.
In light of this, it seems ostensibly intuitive that 2007 would also see a revival of the thoroughly American film genre, the Western. While the world was growing increasingly complex and unparsable, Westerns were a theoretically potent form of escapism: a reversion to simplistic storylines of good and evil archetypes set in a time before things got so weird. Instead, audiences were treated to the subversive Neo-Westerns There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson), The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik) and No Country For Old Men (Ethan and Joel Coen).
I recently re-watched these films as an eight-hour triple feature and was struck by how well they harmonised. Aside from a mutual genre and release year, these films also have common DNA in that There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men were filmed in the same area of West Texas and both No Country For Old Men and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford share an actor in Garret Dillahunt and a DOP in Roger Deakins. Rather than propagandising or consoling, these films form a bleak triptych of the declining American psyche. Where the strong and honourable heroes in classic Westerns personified the prevailing stated values of the country’s golden years, here they are supplanted by characters that reflect contemporary America: impotent, paranoid and morally corrupt. Now just to be clear, I am not suggesting that America’s conduct in the 20th century was substantively any less iniquitous than in the one that succeeded it, but there was certainly a shift in the public’s self-image.
This article is an analysis of American decline through the characters of Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood), Jesse James (played by Brad Pitt in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford) and Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men). These men embody America through their violence and alienation, but they (and their character arcs) can also be viewed as specifically representing three distinct facets of the American machine: imperialism, celebrity and capitalism.
IMPERIALISM — There Will Be Blood
At first glance, There Will Be Blood appears to be a critique of America’s unrestrained brand of capitalism, but it can also be read as a parable on Empire. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a businessman who makes his fortune buying up lucrative land, exploiting local inhabitants and building oil pipelines. Analogously, America has spent much of the last century dominating and invading poorer, weaker countries and has done so, like Plainview, via a combination of subterfuge and outright violence. And yes oil has literally been central to many of these conquests.
Superficially, American Imperialism since World War II has looked quite different to the historical crude colonial exploits of Western Europe that came before, but its function has been identical — expand US hegemony and make a bunch of money. Plainview is also careful not to paint himself as the ruthless businessman that he is, and in both cases, a disingenuous narrative is employed by the aggressor to buffer criticism. Plainview’s depiction of himself as a humble family man (especially through the use of his adopted son H.W.) and America’s Straussian fiction of exporting Democracy and “freedom” to the world, mask the despotic greed at the hearts of both parties.
Of course, this great American myth is just that: a myth. In reality, the United States has a sordid history of backing totalitarian regimes like that of Pol Pot (yes really) and Saudi Arabia, while “intervening” in countries where democratically-elected candidates are deemed “bad for business”. This is ongoing by the way. In Bolivia, for example, the US supported (rhetorically and directly) a coup in 2020 to remove the popular President Evo Morales of the MAS (Movement for Socialism) party.
The corrupting nature of American expansion is best symbolised by the relationship between Plainview and Paul Dano’s Eli Sunday. Eli leads the congregation in a town where Plainview acquires drilling land and begins the film as a pious, yet respected pillar of the community. He is initially wary of Daniel but is placated by promises of infrastructure, roads and increased prosperity for the community (where have I heard that before?). Plainview degrades the preacher throughout the film, culminating in a haunting climax where Eli renounces his religion and begs Daniel for money before being brutally murdered with a bowling pin.
After the humiliating chaos of Vietnam, there was very little public appetite for foreign wars, but that all changed in 2001. Plenty has already been written about the two wars that followed, but suffice to say they were both calamitous, and America now leaves Afghanistan 20 years later with its tail well and truly between its legs. Daniel Plainview does not escape unharmed either and finishes the film rattling around his mansion embittered, isolated and a drunk. His best years are long gone and bigger fish are circling.
CELEBRITY — The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
America’s relationship with celebrity has always appeared peculiarly Panglossian, especially as an Australian afflicted by our own national malady of “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. While we tend to have a natural scepticism of the rich and famous, members of Team USA have traditionally shown a genuine and uncritical reverence to the successful, though this breathless infatuation has slowly come off the boil in recent years.
The real Jesse James is not just symbolic of this tradition, he is quite literally an example of it. He was a figure of adulation in his time and often likened to Robin Hood, though most evidence suggests he was simply a bandit and a killer. We see this incongruity play out in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford at the micro-level through the eyes of Robert Ford, who begins the film obsequiously fawning over James, but as he spends more time with the man, he grows increasingly disillusioned and ultimately takes his life. To an extent, this mirrors the American public’s growing cynicism of elites and we have seen this dynamic manifest in populist movements on both sides of the political spectrum.
I suspect this disillusionment has arisen for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there has been a surge in class consciousness, as inter-generational lived experience has revealed the American Dream for the fantasy that it is. Many have begun to contrast the tangibly wretched conditions of their lives with the charmed existence of the successful and to question the brutal inequity in the American system. The other factor here is over-exposure. When Robert Ford was growing up, he idolised Jesse James, but once he met the man in the flesh, enchantment gave way to revulsion. In a similar way, celebrities, who have generally been symbols of mystery and intrigue, now share themselves more comprehensively (through social media and reality TV shows etc.) and reveal themselves to be nauseatingly human when held up to the light.
Historically the inclination towards credulous deification has been responsible for countless cults and charlatan televangelists in the United States. Of course, these kinds of movements do exist in other countries, but there is a particular vein of fanaticism that thrives on American soil. Now clearly Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs were not identical to figures like Charles Manson, Jim Jones or David Koresh, but they absolutely provoked a passionate, cult-like response from their fans. Most recently, in Donald Trump, we saw a cult-of-personality president (certainly not the first) who was able to successfully work both sides of the street by, at once, playing into the public’s long-standing predilection for symbols of success, while also attacking elites and appealing to contemporary cynicism.
CAPITALISM — No Country for Old Men
The character Anton Chigurh of No Country For Old Men represents the final, and most crucial facet in my triad of American decline: capitalism. Despite America’s best efforts to export free-market ideology across the globe, no other country has quite been able to match the unbridled depravity of their home-grown version of economic liberalism. In a similar way, Javier Bardem’s Chigurh is not the only hitman in this fictional world, but he is by far the most ruthless. He begins the film as a symbol of US capital in the second half of the century: a relentless force of nature, moving through space and indiscriminately liquidating any obstacle in his way. Even his weapon of choice, a bolt gun (typically used when slaughtering cattle), is a symbol of mass consumption. Chigurh is dispassionate, but to describe him as an agent of chaos would be inaccurate. Rather he is perversely principled and abides by the internal logic of his deranged rules. The character follows through on all promises and flips a coin to decide who lives and who dies, effectively divorcing himself from the immorality of his actions. He functions as an uncaring system comprised of inputs, outputs and instructions.
The American free market is also a system, with its own set of rules and principles: supply, demand, competition, the invisible hand, freedom etc. Lives in this system are destroyed at random by illness, injury, capricious employers and most often, through the weighted coin flip of inherited economic status. As with Chigurh, it seems fatuous to “blame” the market for any specific allotment of misfortune, as it is merely an apparatus, a distributed system, a set of instructions executing and behaving as expected. This is periodically shown to be utter bullshit in times of crisis, as economists and politicians scramble to retroactively fit narratives and overlay structure that portrays the most recent catastrophe as an aberration — the assumption being that there couldn’t possibly be something intrinsically wrong with the system itself. This is analogous to blaming Chigurh’s victims for incorrectly guessing the result of a coin flip as if this artifice absolves him of his actions.
Not only that, the rules themselves are incoherent and applied arbitrarily. We are told, for example, that markets are inefficient when anti-competitive oligopolies arise, and yet these exist, unimpeded, across many industries. We are told that markets are inefficient when there is informational asymmetry between actors, and yet employers keep salary information opaque and manipulative advertising is permitted to shape consumer decisions. We are told that markets are inefficient when there is no separation between big business and the state, and yet election campaigns are funded with private money and lobbyists influence legislation. In a scene near the end of No Country For Old Men, Chigurh sits across from Carla Jean Moss and asks her to call his coin flip, but when she refuses, he breaks his rule and kills her anyway.
The other parallel between Chigurh and American capitalism is resilience. While There Will Be Blood and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford end with their lead characters defeated, Anton Chigurh’s final moments on-screen find him injured but very much alive. Throughout the film, he survives bullets and a serious car accident but shows almost no vulnerability. In the same way, confidence in the American economic system has taken several blows in recent years — think the dot-com bubble, the Californian energy crisis, Enron and the GFC — but neoliberal ideology has obstinately endured. US capitalism has at times seemed indestructible, however, there have been a few noticeable wobbles recently with the rise of figures such as senator Bernie Sanders (a self-described Democratic Socialist) and protest movements like Occupy Wall Street. COVID-19 has also reshaped the political conversation around public spending and hit America in 2020 like a car from out of frame.
In this article, I have attempted to show how the American public’s views on imperialism, celebrity culture and capitalism are respectively tracing the destructive trajectories of characters Daniel Plainview, Jesse James and Anton Chigurh. The 2007 films discussed here reached into the chauvinistic Western genre to tell stories that critique these three central pillars of the American machine and, fittingly, all end pessimistically. So is the United States of America really on the brink of imminent collapse? Obviously not, but as the public reckons with the conflicting cold data of recent decades, and as more diverse voices enter the fray, it is only natural that these myopic grand narratives enter a process of national reappraisal.