The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Directed By: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt, Zooey Deschanel
In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Brad Pitt plays legendary outlaw Jesse James near the end of his run with the James Gang. As the film opens, almost all of the gang members with whom Jesse and his brother Frank (Shepard) have previously ridden are dead or incarcerated. In the middle of planning a train robbery and assembling a new gang from the available riff raff, they are sought out by Bob Ford (Affleck) and his brother Charley (Rockwell). Fueled by the highly romanticized exploits of Jesse from dime novels, Bob has an obsessive interest in him which immediately makes Frank suspicious, but does not seem to bother Jesse too much. After the gang stages their robbery, they split up, with Frank leaving the gang for good. Much to Bob's delight, Jesse allows him to stay with him for a few more days before sending him off. The ensuing months are filled with pressure and paranoia as various gang members run afoul of each other while Missouri Governor Crittenden (Carville) redoubles his efforts to take Jesse down. For his part Jesse becomes increasingly volatile and dangerous as he becomes convinced that his former comrades are plotting against him due to the substantial price on his head. Bob's admiration for Jesse begins to mix with disappointment and fear for his own life.
After the set-up and initial train robbery, Director Andrew Dominik constructs the film as a series of suspense sequences where the threat of impending violence hangs in the air and is the subtext for nearly every conversation. While this results in some memorably tense exchanges, it does begin to feel repetitive over the course of the film's protracted running time. Hugh Ross provides voiceover narration at frequent points in the film. While he has the type of voice that one can listen to all day, I could not help think that several of his bits of narration were either completely unnecessary or were describing events that would make more interesting movie scenes than the ones we actually get to see.
The film is visually quite striking and appears to have been heavily manipulated by cinematographer Roger Deakins to tilt colors towards yellows and browns for a sepia effect somewhere between what Deakins and the Coen Brothers achieved digitally with O Brother Where Art Thou and what Robert Altman and Vilmos Zsigmond achieved photochemically for McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
Aside from the gorgeous cinematography, Casey Affleck's performance is probably the best reason to see the movie. Rather than just playing Ford as a stock creepy stalker, he imbues him with a sensitivity and pathos that makes him seem equal parts misguided dreamer and dangerous obsessive loser. Pitt does not fare quite as well at providing any sense of Jesse's inner life, probably as much or more due to limitations in the screenplay and editorial choices than to any deficiency in his performance. Jesse is shown to be troubled and have a death wish. The director even resorts to the overused cliche of him shooting his own reflection at one point. Unfortunately, since little indication is given of what Jesse was like before the events depicted in the film, his character feels stagnant other than his increasing paranoia. One of the enduring mysteries of the event described in the film's title involves why James behaved the way he did in the moments leading up to it. While the film is in no way obliged to make perfect sense out of it, it does not handle it in a way that I found either dramatically satisfying or particularly interesting. As things stand, I could not help think that I would have rather seen the fim's narrative balance shift towards showing more of Ford's life after the event described in the title. As constructed, these events play out as more or less an extended coda, curiously interrupted by two musical numbers from Nick Cave and Zoe Deschanel.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.4:1 transfer represents the film's highly stylized cinematography fairly, but not perfectly. The main culprit is low intensity edge halos around high contrast edges which are particularly noticeable on large projection displays. A scene which features Pitt and Rockwell against a background of sky and snow covered scenery is probably the best illustration of the problem, but it is an issue during most medium and long shot daytime exteriors. There are instances of heavy compression artifacts, during some shots with a lot of movement (a camera pan across a field of windblown tall grass, for instance), but they are infrequent and not a major issue.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is an excellent representation of a mix that ranges from subtly enveloping for most of the film's running time to very active for specific sequences such as the train heist near the film's opening. The spare, sometimes annoyingly repetitive score from Warren Ellis and Nick Cave is represented with excellent fidelity. Alternate Dolby Digital 5.1 language dubs are available in French and Spanish.
There are no proper extras on the disc.
When the disc is first spun up, the viewer is greeted with the following promotional clips, all of which are presented in 4:3 letterboxed video with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound.
- Theatrical trailer for One Missed Call running two minutes and 25 seconds
- Theatrical teaser for 10,000 BC running one minute and seventeen seconds
- Theatrical trailer for The Bucket List running two minutes and 30 seconds
- DVD trailer for The Brave One running 33 seconds
- DVD trailer for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee running 31 seconds[font]
The film is packaged in a standard Amaray-style case with no inserts. The well chosen cover image manages to feature the two lead actors prominently and still give an idea what the film is all about.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an elegiac western that unfolds at a pace that will be described as "measured" if one is a fan of mood pieces and "slow" if one is not. The beautiful cinematography and a fine performance from Casey Affleck as the squirrelly, unstable, but oddly sympathetic Bob Ford make the disc worth at least a rental for fans of post-modern westerns. The film is presented on disc with excellent audio, good video marred only by some light edge ringing, and no extras.