The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford may be an unwieldy title, but it's certainly an accurate one. Shrugging off any childhood flashbacks or heavy-handed exposition, the film opens as an outlaw once revered as a sort of rebellious folk hero has long since fallen out of favor. As the Civil War becomes more and more of a distant memory, the nation has shifted its gaze elsewhere, and Jesse James (Brad Pitt) finds his choice of bandits to skulk alongside him growing increasingly slim. As the James Brothers scheme what would prove to be the last of their train heists, the gang takes on Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell), whose younger brother Robert (Casey Affleck) pesteringly flits around Jesse like a moth to a flame. Bob devoured the nickel pulp novels exaggerating the legend of the James Gang, and his awkward fascination with the outlaw is met with uncomfortable snickering by the rest of the gang and a sort of curious bemusement by Jesse himself. James even keeps the kid around once the gang goes its separate ways, but the novelty quickly grows stale, and they too part ways.
All of this happens in the first act of The Assassination of Jesse James..., a quiet, contemplative film whose only glimmers of action are over and done with a half hour in. Writer/director Andrew Dominik poses quite a few questions throughout the movie -- the infancy of the culture of celebrity and the nation's morbid fascination with murderers, for instance -- but one of its most intriguing is what kind of life a criminal ekes out for himself when there's no more crime to commit. Jesse's older brother Frank (Sam Shepard) has grown weary of his years on the run, seemingly disinterested in having anything to deal with his brother and former partner anymore. Jesse himself struggles with the banality of a respectable life while still constantly fleeing from his past; he grows increasingly paranoid of the Pinkertons' relentless hunt for him, tearing through an unending series of aliases and uprooting his family every few months. His children don't even know his real name.
It's an atmosphere of fear and distrust, and the former members of James' gang betray him and each other so frequently that his paranoia is hardly unfounded. With every other one of his former partners missing or dead, James uneasily reconnects with the two Ford brothers. Charlie and Bob are convinced he's going to shoot them dead, wasting sleepless nights waiting for the opportune time to gun James down. James, however, is never without the cold nickel of his pistol within arm's reach, on one hand unwilling to be murdered by such fearful, incompetent failures while on the other desperate to hold onto the only true connection he has to any other men.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an exceptional work of artistry and craftsmanship. Writer/director Andrew Dominik doesn't bow to the usual demands of mainstream filmmaking, where films are carved down to bare metal to keep the pace nimble and shoehorn as many screenings a day as possible into each darkened theater. The Assassination of Jesse James... has the confidence to be this quiet and contemplative throughout its nearly three hour runtime, the combined strength of its screenplay, surehanded direction, and outstanding cast ensuring that it's endlessly engaging.
The audience knows the inevitable outcome, if not from history itself than by the film's title, but so too does Jesse James. This is a man who without exception dominates every situation, and when things do spiral out of control, it's at his hand. James' final downfall is unavoidable, and he both recognizes this and resigns himself to it, so much so that the title of the movie owes more to the public's interpretation than what actually unfolded.
The film is a showcase for the talents of Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, the latter of whom is having a particularly outstanding year between this and Gone Baby Gone. The Assassination of Jesse James... doesn't romanticize either man, and Pitt and Affleck infuse their characters with the precise amount of exhaustion and wear. Pitt paints James as the charismatic sort of fellow almost destined to become a legend. He's not much of a leader, but it's instantly clear why men would gravitate towards him. James is haunted as much by his combustible temper as he is by the certainty of being stabbed in the back. This isn't The Wild Bunch, with its psychopaths reveling in bloodshed, or a Sergio Leone spaghetti western with untold dozens of men clutching their chests as they mime being gunned down. The Assassination of Jesse James... reserves its body count to maximize the impact of each kill and outlash, and neither the film nor its representation of the outlaw take any pleasure in it.
Affleck approaches Robert Ford as a wide-eyed kid fully aware of just how insignificant he is, defining himself in terms of his proximity to a man he thinks he knows through a stack of lurid dime store novels. Seeing that shy, reflexive grin...his hesitance to look anyone straight in the eye...Ford's awkward hero worship that almost ranks as a sort of teenaged crush transform into envy, fear, and inescapable loathing -- that is ultimately the story of The Assassination of Jesse James..., not the act of murder itself. The film continues on after James' death, following Ford as he gets a taste of the celebrity he'd long hungered for only to find his life as unsatisfying in the limelight as he was as a meaningless, 19 year old nobody.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins stands nominated for two Academy Awards this year: No Country for Old Men, one of several nominations he's earned throughout his long-time collaboration with the Coen Brothers, as well as a nod for his masterful work in this film. The Assassination of Jesse James... is astonishingly beautiful, framing its characters against stark, barren vistas, alternately draping the landscape in piercingly white snow and golden stalks of wheat. Deakins often approaches his photography more like film noir than a picturesque western, casting its outlaws in silhouette and emphasizing a deft interplay between light and shadow.
Although narration is too frequently used as a crutch to prop up awkward storytelling or particularly savage editing in many movies, Hugh Ross' sharp, literate voiceover is an integral part of the structure of The Assassination of Jesse James.... The narration's frequent references to James' impending murder at Ford's hand adds a certain amount of suspense and intrigue, even if the ultimate outcome is never in question. It's similarly striking how sparingly the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is used, reserved as a sort of somber punctuation for a scene rather than the traditional sweeping, epic strings.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford unfortunately languished throughout its very limited theatrical run, tallying up a paltry few million dollars despite being indifferently dumped onto a couple hundred screens by Warner Bros. Few had the opportunity to experience The Assassination of Jesse James... theatrically, but this is an outstanding film that demands to be discovered on Blu-ray.
Video: This high definition release of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has been repeatedly raked over the coals on numerous message boards and review sites. I'll admit to being mostly pleased with how the film turned out on Blu-ray -- presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and encoded using Warner's preferred VC-1 codec -- even if it's not without its flaws.
The Assassination of Jesse James... has somewhat of an overprocessed look to it, peppered with some mild ringing around high contrast edges and sporadically suffering from the sort of artificially smoothened appearance that accompanies overzealous noise reduction. That said, these flaws should hardly be noticeable at all on smaller to medium-sized displays, really only posing much of a concern for viewers with front projection rigs or TVs 55" and up.
Fine object detail is often strong -- there were several points where I was startled by how detailed the scope image was -- but crispness and clarity can waver from one scene to the next, with some of the dimly-lit interiors coming across as somewhat soft and murky. The Assassination of Jesse James... was shot with an intensely stylized visual eye, and viewers should go in realizing that as beautiful as the film is, not every last moment is meant to stand out as showcase material for a high-end home theater; the bridging shots that play under Hugh Ross' narration take on a deliberately diffused haze around the edge of the frame, for instance. Its palette suits the movie, alternating between a sunbaked gold, a sepia tint, and cold, desaturated hues. Black levels remain deep and dense throughout.
I'm curious how The Assassination of Jesse James... would've turned out if its presentation had been optimized for Blu-ray; this is a nearly three hour long movie, but it's placed on a single layer that doesn't give the bitrate much room to breathe. Even though I thought The Assassination of Jesse James... turned out rather well on this release, I can't help but wonder how much better it would've looked under more ideal circumstances.
Audio: The Assassination of Jesse James... rehashes the same 640Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack from the HD DVD, dispensing with the lossless and uncompressed soundtracks that have been such a mainstay on the Blu-ray format. Even with those technical limitations, the audio still sounds fantastic, thanks in large part to its lively sound design. The mix is at its most aggressive during the heist, but even with the quiet emphasis on characterization throughout the remainder of the film, The Assassination of Jesse James... makes frequent and effective use of all of the channels it has on-hand.
The surround channels are teeming with color, from the strong atmospherics of a movie frequently set outdoors to the brief glimpse of the bustling streets of St. Louis. Even something as seemingly straightforward as Bob splashing water across his face subtly but effectively takes advantage of the multichannel setup. There's often some directionality to the dialogue as well, and it's rendered with sterling clarity, unmarred by even the faintest flicker of distortion. Bass response is also tight and substantial when called for. The lack of any sort of lossless or uncompressed option is a disappointment, but The Assassination of Jesse James... still sounds wonderful on Blu-ray.
Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks and subtitle streams have also been provided in French and Spanish. Traditional English and SDH subtitles are included as well.
Extras: There's only one extra on this Blu-ray disc, although that's admittedly one more extra than Warner bothered with for the completely bare-bones DVD release.
The half hour featurette "Death of an Outlaw" is a historical retrospective rather than a traditional making-of piece. As the title of the movie suggests, The Assassination of Jesse James... focuses squarely on the twilight of James' life; "Death of an Outlaw" delves further into the outlaw's past, exploring how James' tumultuous upbringing and his days as a guerilla soldier for the Confederacy shaped the man he would become. James' story is told by the authors of several books on the outlaw, as well as the cast and crew of this film, and footage from the movie is interpersed throughout. Intriguingly, several of those snippets are culled from scenes that didn't make it into the final cut, although none of this additional footage is presented in full or with its original dialogue elsewhere on the disc. Although this is a film crying out for a far more lavish special edition, "Death of an Outlaw" does complement The Assassination of Jesse James... especially well and is worth setting aside a half hour to explore.
Conclusion: It's a tremendous disappointment to see one of the year's most exceptional films be dismissed by Warner Bros. with such an indifferent shrug on Blu-ray. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is truly outstanding -- a hypnotic, introspective, and wholly engrossing work of art cut from the Terrence Malick mold. Despite the meager extras and unremarkable technical presentation, The Assassination of Jesse James... is an extraordinary film that's well worth discovering on Blu-ray. A more robust package would've garnered DVD Talk's highest recommendation, but this Blu-ray disc still comes enthusiastically recommended. Highly Recommended.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.