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Category:    Home > Reviews > Western > The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (HD-DVD/DVD Combo Format; Warner Home Video) + The Real Jesse James Collection (Genius Entertainment)

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (HD-DVD/DVD Combo Format; Warner Home Video) + The Real Jesse James Collection (Genius Entertainment)


Picture: B-/C+/C     Sound: B+/B-/C+     Extras: C/D     Film: B-     Collection: C



Back in 1975, Elton John was the biggest thing in music and at the peak of his amazing success, was adding more Country elements to his music than many may have realized at the time.  On his terrific Rock Of The Westies album, he had a great song called I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford) and it was a dramatic piece about a dead relationship.  Though it was not about the actual killer of Jesse James or the historical events thereof, it was the only major pop culture reference to the man who cut the life of the legendary killer short until 2007, when Warner Bros. released writer/director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.


Besides having the longest title for a major Western in decades, the remarkably, barely-told story about how James and Ford knew each other for a long time before the relationship was ended by betrayal finally reaches the screen in what is the most ambitious throwback to the thoughtful Westerns of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman from the late 1960s into the decline of the genre in the 1970s.


A sometimes unrecognizable Brad Pitt (channeling a bit of Colin Farrell?) is James in his mature and used-to-be-menacing years where his myth and reputation cast a very long shadow.  He continues to plot banks to rob and will kill anyone in his way at any time.  He is very cold and there is not glorification here in Pitt’s subdued performance, which happens to be his best in many years.  His best since Snatch, seven years ago.


Easily equaling him is the breakthrough performance by Casey Affleck as Ford, in a long film that never gets tired as both history lesson and character study.  Even in Gone Baby Gone (reviewed elsewhere on this site) he was repeating work he and his brother Ben had done years ago.  Now, he has a role (rightly nominated for various acting awards) that brings to life one of the most neglected historical figures in all the West (and Western) because it is not as exciting as a guy and his brother who go around robbing banks and shooting people.


Though it runs 160 minutes, it is one of those long, almost epic Westerns that works and I was surprised that the film held up as well as it did.  Affleck could have been showy or pulls a variety of tricks during his screen time, but instead inflects the character with a sense of what it is to be amazed by notoriety and not knowing how to deal with it long before media saturation. He does not have the option of drowning himself in cyber media or TV.  Radio has not even arrived yet, so he has to face himself and eventually makes a decision that is not simple and has many facets to it.


Dominik wrote the screenplay, which feels real even with its voiceover and dares to explore the many sides of masculinity in some slyly deconstructive ways that seem analogous with the films subtle deconstruction of Westerns in general.  This is not a showy Jesse James film about “how great it must have been” to be a robber (and early, if unrecognized, gangster) who got away with murder and more.  James is not a nice guy here and is rather a mentally sick man to boot.  Pitt does not overdue any idea of psychosis either.


As the highest complement, this is the boldest look at the West since Michael Cimino’s ever-controversial Heaven’s Gate (1980) and at a time when Paul Thomas Anderson imitated every director he ever loved starting with Altman to make There Will Be Blood, Dominik comes across with an equally smart film that attempts to have a more singularly original directorial vision.  Both films have issues with their conclusion, but at least this film is not as predictable, even when you think you know (or would actually know) what was coming.


The Western genre is so old, you have to reinvent it every time you make one.  This film decides to do that by reaching back to the most mature period of the genre and expanding on it grandly.  Warner did not know how to sell it in theaters, but anyone who likes solid storytelling will enjoy The Assassination Of Jesse James and as more people see it, expect nothing but good word of mouth for those who want films with thick, rich screenplays, good acting and serious storytelling.



The 1080p 2.35 X 1 image is weaker than expected as the long film is squeezed on one side of this disc, a mistake from Warner as bad as trying to fit the film on the 25GB Blu-ray they also issued.  Roger Deakins, A.S.C., B.S.C., sure delivers visually and it deserves better presentation than it gets here.  That leaves the anamorphically enhanced DVD side even weaker and made for a great argument against the Combo format.  The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 on the HD side is better than the regular Dolby on the standard DVD side, but it still has its limits, made me wish for Dolby TrueHD or DTS MA and is the technical highlight of either side.  The only extra is a making of featurette on the HD side called Death Of An Outlaw.


The Real Jesse James Collection collects two old shorts programs (in analog 1.33 X 1 NTSC video) retreading obvious information about James and his gang, but lacks the kind of depth most tellings of the story lacks.  It was obviously issued to capitalize on this film, but is shoddy.  Fortunately, Assassination does not and that is why you should see it when you can get the time to sit through it.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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