Warner Bros. // 2007 // 160 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // February 9th, 2008
"Don't that picture look dusty?" ((Bang)) -- Jesse James
When big names (like Brad Pitt, Brad Grey, and Ridley Scott) are attached to small films, there's an innate tendency for entertainment media and moviegoers alike to make them into something much more than they are. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford should not be compared to 3:10 to Yuma, or Legends of the Fall, or any other modern day Western for that matter. This is an intimate tale of personal demons and the long-term impact they have on men's psyches. In fact, the story has more to do with the life of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) as painted against a canvas that is the legend and the humanity of Jesse James (Brad Pitt).
The film opens on the final heist of the James brothers and the first in which Robert was involved. He saw himself as much needed new blood, someone who could revitalize the aging James gang and carry their Robin Hood methodolgy into the next generation. Unfortunately, as was often the case in Robert's life, no one else saw the situation as he did.
Jesse had long been idolized and vilified for his actions, but never quite in the way that Robert fawned on him. Perhaps that's why Jesse took a liking to him. Perhaps he felt sympathy or a kinship to the boy not yet a man who was seen more as an oddity than an asset. Or perhaps he held to the ancient philosophy of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. We'll never know what secrets were held by the tormented mind of the modern American Robin Hood. But we can guess, which is just what author Ron Hansen and director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik set out to do.
Production of the film was mired in almost as much mystery and speculation as the central character himself. Optioned in 2004, filmed in 2006, and released late in 2007, some were beginning to wonder if The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford would ever see the light of day. Stories of disputes between the studio and the filmmakers, poor test screenings, and a three-hour run time aside, Dominik and company have done their job and delivered a film worthy of our attention.
Regardless of whether or not you are partial to westerns or biopics, this particular film is unique in that it plays like a dramatized documentary, complete with historical narration (by Hugh Ross), while unfolding like the life and death of a flower in slow motion splendor. It is because of this gentle pacing we can examine and appreciate who these characters are and what they go through, whereas in the hands of a Michael Bay or even a Terry Gilliam the visual stimulation would prevent us from doing so. Yes, two hours and 40 minutes is a great deal of time to spend with a film, but if you invest it diligently (not while washing dishes, checking email, or leafing through the stack of magazines on your coffee table) you'll be rewarded with a thought provoking, emotional journey.
Dominik and cinematographer Roger Deakins (who shot two other hauntingly beautiful films this year -- In the Valley of Elah and No Country for Old Men), alongside composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, together paint a striking visual feast, from sweeping landscapes to a detailed bleakness of life for many in the post-Civil War era. And though it may challenge audience's notion of a western, there are only a handful of gunplay sequences, all of which exemplify the personal or societal desperation suffered by most people at that time, and none of which escape the emotional ramification of those choices.
In terms of performances, the accolades being lauded Casey Affleck are, for the most part, well deserved. He internalizes most all of Robert's deep seeded passions and fears, forcing the onscreen emotions to battle their way to the surface. However, by the end of the film, one wonders whether his performance was more along the lines of a Gary Oldman or a Crispin Glover. The body of work he builds from this point on will speak to the range at which he can differentiate himself from character to character; which is exactly the challenge faced by Brad Pitt in the role Jesse James. This is yet another teeth-nashing performance from Brad, but one that begins to echo a few too many characters from his past. In Jesse's most unstable moments we see the emergence of Jeffrey Goines from Twelve Monkeys. In his violent outbursts, we catch glimpses of Tyler Durden (Fight Club) and Achilles (Troy). In his emotional breakdowns, we see the torment and unending sadness within Louis de Point du Lac (Interview with a Vampire). And transitioning between these moments, there's a fair amount of Tristin Ludlow from Legends of the Fall. These observations are not meant to criticize, only to point out that as actors we tend to draw upon past experiences to fuel the emotion of the moment, some of which can become crutches over time.
Sam Shepard, Mary Louise Parker, and Zooey Deschanel appear in enhanced cameo roles with little screen time and even less dialogue. Ted Levine makes a brief appearance as a 19th Century version of Captain Stottelmeyer, the role he plays on Monk. And Sam Rockwell does what Sam Rockwell does consistently well -- craft yet another exquisitely tortured soul.
Presented in 2.40:1 native 1080p widescreen, this is yet another Blu-ray release that does not seem to excel beyond its theatrical predecessor. This may have more to do with the 35mm film stock used by Deakins and Dominick combined with the bleak color palate of the period, than any technical flaws in the digital intermediate. However, there is a fair amount of edge enhancement to be found and I sincerely hope this doesn't signal a trend at Deluxe Digital. An art house film like this does not need image tampering for an audience to enjoy. The Dolby 5.1 surround mix is primarily front heavy with little use of the ambient speakers, but does provide a magnificent delivery of Cave and Ellis' unforgettable score that will resonate with you long after the film concludes. Please note the film begins immediately upon insertion with no upfront menu to choose from. This is a technique used by many new Warner Home Video releases and it's still somewhat jarring.
If you were hoping for a wealth of supporting bonus materials, you're out of luck. What WHV refers to as a "Making-of Documentary" is really more of a conversation between talking heads and the audience. Brad, Casey, Dominik, Ron Hansen, and a bevy of Jesse James scholars discuss the historical figure's life and how it has been played out on the big screen. Interesting, but you'll have to delve into the recent History Channel release Jesse James: American Outlaw for the more detailed story.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford proves once again there is no honor among thieves, and the karmic balance of right and wrong exacts its own form of justice, often in ways we may never truly understand. Whether you feel Robert acted out of desperate need for self-preservation and aggrandizement, or was somehow encouraged to become an angel of mercy for a man who had outlived his usefulness is a choice you must make for yourself.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* 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
* "The Assassination of Jesse James: Death of an Outlaw"
* Official Site
* Original DVD Verdict Review