Warner Bros. // 2007 // 160 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // February 5th, 2008
"He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard. His children didn't know how their father made his living, or why they so often moved. They didn't even know their father's name. He regretted neither his robberies nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to, and on September 5, 1881, Jesse James was 34 years old."
Stories of the life and exploits of the outlaw Jesse James have been the subject of song, film, and television for decades. The latest big-screen portrayal of James comes in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a beautifully shot, poetic film in the tradition of Terrence Malick. This movie, one of 2007's best, comes to DVD on an extras-free disc from Warner Home Video.
Jesse James (Brad Pitt, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and his brother, Frank (Sam Shepard, Don't Come Knocking), are on the cusp of their last robbery, a train job in Missouri. Among the locals joining them for the heist are the Ford brothers: slow-witted Charley (Sam Rockwell, Matchstick Men) and callow, ambitious Bob (Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone). Following the robbery, Jesse's behavior becomes increasingly unpredictable, and he begins to suspect that his partners in crime have betrayed him. Afraid of Jesse's wrath, jealous of the man he is, and also eager for the fame and adulation that he feels will be his for bringing him down, Bob shoots the outlaw in the back. However, instead of becoming a hero, Bob becomes a pariah whose future is forever tainted as a result of his actions.
While The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is technically a western, those who come to it expecting something like the recent 3:10 to Yuma remake will be sorely disappointed. Unlike that film, and many other westerns, Assassination is more concerned with character, mood, and atmosphere than it is with gunplay. Like John Hillcoat's excellent 2005 film The Proposition, Assassination is somber and meditative. At a little over two-and-a-half-hours (sans credits), some might consider Assassination to be over long, but those with the patience to stick with it will be more than rewarded.
As I said in my opening statement, Assassination is reminiscent of the work of Terrence Malick (Badlands, The New World). Like Malick's work, much of Assassination takes place outdoors in beautiful, unspoiled landscapes. This gives cinematographer Roger Deakins plenty of opportunity to work wonders with the camera, and the result is one of the most gorgeous-looking films I've ever seen. In Assassination, Deakins sometimes blurs the edges of the frame to make the composition look like an old photograph. He makes good use of time-lapse photography. He gives the early train robbery sequences an appropriate air of eerie menace; watch how the light from the train plays across the trees, illuminating the masked robbers as it goes. Deakins absolutely deserved his Oscar nomination for his work on this film, and even if you object to Assassination because you don't like the story, direction, or acting, I just can't see how anyone could say it is not well shot.
Another aspect of Assassination that brings Malick to mind is the use of voiceover narration. The narration, taken verbatim (or nearly so) from the Ron Hansen novel upon which this film is based, is a valuable part of the film. Spoken by Hugh Ross, the narration helps give the film its elegiac feel, and also goes a long way toward establishing atmosphere. Yes, it sometimes comments on things that the viewer can clearly see, and it is not as philosophical and abstract as the kind of narration found in Malick's films, but more often than not, the narration works.
Andrew Dominik's script is largely faithful to Hansen's novel, although chunks of the book have been excised for the film adaptation. Like the book, Dominik begins the film with a short prologue that introduces James and very effectively sets up the story we are about to see. In fact, just the prologue alone, as written and directed by Dominik and shot by Deakins, is better than many whole movies that came out last year. Following the assassination (which occurs after the two-hour mark), Dominik includes an epilogue showing the fates of Bob and Charley. At first, this portion felt rushed, but upon second viewing, it's a perfect way of tying things up.
Based on reviews I have read, some object to Assassination due to what they feel is an excessive runtime that detours too often from James himself. Having seen the movie twice now, I can't buy that. For one, although the secondary characters do figure somewhat more prominently in the second act, they live in constant fear of James, who comes to visit members of the gang at random. The clear effect that even James's absence has on the gang members goes a long way toward developing his character. In addition, the second act of the film contains subplots that lead up to Bob shooting someone (not James), which is very important for his character. Besides, Dominik's languid pace enables the actors to breathe and further develop their characters, which is why there are so many rich supporting performances in this film.
While Casey Affleck (who will be discussed later) is the only actor from this cast to have received an Academy Award nomination for Assassination (for best supporting actor), there are a number of terrific performances in the film, starting with Brad Pitt as James. As the character is written, James is aloof, a cipher; one moment he strikes a train worker on the head with his pistol butt, the next he's gleefully doing a dance in the train car. The outlaw of this film, having committed robberies for years, is guarded and unreadable, forever putting the other members of his gang off balance. He's the kind of man whose easy grin can hide malice just as much as his unsettling stare can clearly convey. It could not have been an easy performance to pull off, and Pitt really deserves mention for it.
Dominik has also populated his supporting cast with talent. Indie stalwart Paul Schneider (Lars and the Real Girl) is a standout as the erudite ladies' man Dick Liddil. Schneider gets several notable scenes in the movie: one near the beginning, where his character talks about women with some of the other gang members; another when he has a conversation with Bob that takes on a hard edge; and some scenes where Liddil flirts with the stepmother of gang member Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner, 28 Weeks Later).
Garret Dillahunt (No Country For Old Men), who gets less screen time than Schneider, nevertheless makes a strong impression as dim-bulb James gang member Ed Miller. He has a terrific scene when James comes to visit him at his home. James suspects Miller of conspiring against him, and Dillahunt's slow, nervous line delivery is absolutely perfect for the character.
Sam Rockwell also bears mentioning. As the less intelligent of the Ford brothers, Rockwell gives a powerful performance, excellently showing his character's downward spiral in the aftermath of the assassination. The disgust Charley feels for his brother for killing James, as well as his guilt and depression over the incident, are painfully apparent in Rockwell's facial expressions and mannerisms.
Sam Shepard (Days of Heaven, yet another Malick connection), while only in a handful of scenes, was a very good choice for the role of Frank James. He has a key scene with Bob at the beginning of the movie. This is where we meet Bob for the first time, and the conversation between him and Frank is critical, as Bob declares himself an expert on "the James boys" and that he will be a great outlaw. Frank, annoyed and unnerved by Bob, tells him he doesn't "have the right ingredients."
Even with all this talent, Affleck really does prove to be the revelation here. It is truly fascinating to watch Bob as he cozies up to his idol, gleefully shooting the breeze with him on James's porch one night. Watch as Bob's admiration of James gradually turns into envy, and how that envy becomes hatred. It's a harrowing journey, one made all the more disturbing by how Affleck plays the character. Bob's grin is more frightening than reassuring, as it always feels like an affectation designed to ingratiate him to whomever he's speaking. Affleck's quiet, reedy voice fits the character nicely as well. In short, it's an extremely compelling performance that stands above the other actors nominated for supporting actor, besting even the excellent Javier Bardem's turn in No Country For Old Men.
Finally, the music of this film needs to be mentioned. The score is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. While there isn't a lot of variety in the music, it is used so perfectly that it brings to mind Malick's Days of Heaven, where Ennio Morricone's score had a similarly mournful tone. In Assassination, however, while the music has a quasi-period feel; there is also an odd, otherworldly quality to it that fits in nicely with the character of Jesse James and the overall mood of the movie.
Warner Home Video's DVD of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford looks and sounds very good. Deakins's cinematography is done justice by this transfer, and the terrific sound work in the film, be it wind blowing through a field or Cave and Ellis's music, comes through very nicely here. Unfortunately, this disc is as barebones as DVDs get; there isn't even a trailer for the film included (which is too bad, because this film had an excellent trailer). Besides the film, the only thing on this disc is a collection of trailers/promos that play before the main menu. The trailers/promos are for One Missed Call (odd timing, since it came out in early January), 10,000 B.C., The Bucket List, The Brave One, and Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. I won't count those as an extra, because 1. They're not accessible from the main menu, and 2. With the possible exception of Knee, there is no real connection between Assassination and any of the films promoted except the fact that they're all related to Warner Bros.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the best films that came out of 2007. Fans of conventional Westerns may be disappointed, but those with a taste for a more deliberately paced, thoughtful, and undeniably well-shot film should not pass up this movie. The lack of special features is unfortunate, but honestly, with a movie this good, I'm just happy to have it on DVD.
Andrew Dominik and co. are not guilty, but the cowards at Warner Home Video are guilty of shooting a great film in the back.
Review content copyright © 2008 Ben Saylor; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 160 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site