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THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell
Director: Andrew Dominik
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 160 Minutes
Release Date: February 5, 2008

ďLook at my red hands and my mean face... and I wonder 'bout that man that's gone so wrong.Ē

Film ****

In 2007, the western genre was not only resurrected, it was unquestionably reinvented and taken into new depths. The remake of 3:10 to Yuma represented the resurrection of the genre, but it was another film that flat out took the genre and presented it in a way seldom seen since the likes of Robert Altmanís McCabe and Mrs. Miller. That film is the poetic cinematic masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford.

The film, for reasons that remain inexplicable to me, didnít get a fair theatrical release. I was fortunate enough to catch the film on the big screen, and watching this film unfold before my eyes was truly one of the most incredible experiences Iíve had in the multiplex. Everything from the pacing of the story to the breathtaking cinematography to the phenomenal music score, as well as all the unique touches applied by writer/director Andrew Dominik, came across executed as a work of true art.

I give an enormous amount of credit to Dominik, who is the only the filmmaker to have made a film that evokes a Terrence Malick feel to it. And in no way has Dominik directly ripped off Malickís style, but rather done in his own way what Malick is know for, establishing mood and creating a storytelling environment unto which the viewer canít help but get lost in. It is the rarest form of bold filmmaking for the truest film lover to appreciate. And like Malickís Days of Heaven, this film was shot entirely in Canada.

And at the heart of the film lies a unique psychological conflict between two men, which alone provides this filmís distinctive elements for a western. Adapted from the novel by Ron Hansen, the film opens in on Jesse James (Brad Pitt) leading his gang of bandits on the last leg of their train-robbing spree in 1881, Missouri. With most of the original members of the James Gang either dead or in prison, he has recruited a local group of petty thieves to assist in Jesseís last big train robbery in Blue Cut, which might just be the single best train robbery sequence ever filmed.

One of those men is Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a persistent weasel of an individual who manages to put off just about everyone he comes across. Robert is nothing but gloriously enthusiastic about working alongside Jesse James, someone he has idolized since childhood. He sees his association with Jesse as a chance to make something of himself, as heís been a nobody all his life.

But those dreams are soon challenged as a brooding sense of paranoia develops, as Jesse begins to suspect his partners of the last train robbery of either siding with rival gangs or cooperating with authorities. Amidst the escalating paranoia and eventual bloodshed, Jesse can never seem to take Robertís appreciation and eagerness seriously.

Finding himself rejected by his one true childhood hero, Robert is quick to take up an offer given to him by the authorities. And still wanting to use a golden opportunity to make something of himself, he makes a crucial decision that ultimately results in the filmís title.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is that even though you know whatís going to happen just by the title of the movie alone, how the story gets there is something to be savored. And when that eventual scene arrives, it still remains a moment of pure astonishment. And even when you think the story might end at the expected point, there is an epilogue to the story that takes the film to an unexpected and extraordinary level, and solidifying its status as a true masterpiece.

In between the events concerning Jesse and Robert, the film also takes time for superb subplots involving the other members of Jesseís gang. One such subplot involves a bitter feud between Jesseís cousin, Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), a womanizer that Wood is not quite fond of. This dispute leads to a sequence of unexpected violence that you donít see coming.

Words cannot express the sheer power of the production qualities of this film. The sound design is impeccable, as you hear just about every possible detail in the surroundings. The cinematography of Roger Deakins, which is nominated for an Oscar and is my pick of the bunch, presents astounding images that will linger in your mind long after the film is over. And the music score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is one of the most unique and majestic scores you will ever hear in a film. The fact that the Academy ignored it in the Best Score category still stuns me.

And I havenít even mentioned the incredible use of voice over narration, provided by Hugh Ross. Reminiscent of the way it was used in Little Children, it adds a spellbinding quality to the film, in the sense that it lets itself unfold like a book. It isnít overdone, and is used at the best possible spots.

The performances in the film are nothing short of brilliant. With a string a strong performances under his belt, Brad Pitt ends up giving his most incredible performance to date. You believe he is Jesse James right from the first scene, and he creates the famous outlaw as an incredibly complex man. Heís extremely difficult to root for, but also shows qualities that make you respect him.

Casey Affleck truly had a breakout year with both this film and with Gone Baby Gone. But if I had to pick a stronger performance of the two, it would no doubt be his revealing portrayal of Robert Ford. It is a quite unusual and extremely haunting performance, and Iím very pleased that he received a much-deserved Oscar nod for his work. The film also delivers strong supporting work from Sam Shepard as Frank James and Sam Rockwell as Robertís older brother, Charley Ford. And Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner and Garret Dillahunt also turn in memorable performances as the members of Jesseís gang.

I simply canít say enough about this film. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford ranks very high on my list of the Best Films of 2007, in fact Iíd like to say that it and my top two picks of the year essentially make up a three-way tie. It is a film to be treasured for passionate film lovers, and I can only hope that on DVD this underrated gem will get the attention it fully deserved while in theaters.

Video ****

This Warner release boasts a strong and remarkable looking presentation. The anamorphic widescreen picture delivers enormous amounts of detail in every beautiful image the film provides. The cinematography looks tremendous as expected, and daytime and nighttime shots both play off in outstanding form. Without question, one of the best looking discs so far this year!

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix is absolutely astounding. From the beginning of the film, the level of surround sound is dynamic and never lets up. I mentioned the incredible sound design, and here it plays off with fantastic results, right down to the smallest sound effect in the surroundings. Nick Caveís music score is beautifully heard, of course, and the numerous outbursts of gunshots deliver a furious effect. Dialogue delivery is first rate, as well.

Features (Zero Stars)

Nothing, sadly, except some bonus previews which proceed the menu screen.

Summary:

The western genre can be defined by a small list of films, and one of those films is The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. Itís a masterpiece in every sense, from the performances to the story to every element in the production. If youíre a fan of mood westerns, and especially bold filmmaking, this is one film you must experience.

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