With the box-office success of 3:10 to Yuma and a leading role played by Brad Pitt, the producers of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford were warranted in their enthusiasm. Jesse James, always a hot commodity in Western American lore, being played by Brad Pitt? What’s not to like about that? Judging by box-office sales, quite a bit. But with the film’s recent release on Blu-ray Disc, the home-movie crowd gets to form its own opinion. And if Blu-ray owners can put aside their dreams of action-packed gunfights, focusing instead on the motivations behind the movie’s historical characters, their opinions could be quite favorable.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a slow movie. I don’t say that as a disappointed warning, but as an important distinction from most Westerns released during the past five years. The movie follows the real-life story of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a young man who idolizes Jesse James to the point of nigh-disturbing obsession, joins the James gang to be closer to his idol, and ultimately kills Jesse James in an attempt to forge his own — and hopefully huge — place in history. With only a half dozen shootings in the film, the majority of the film’s two hours and 41 minutes is focused on these two characters’ emotional evolution. As such, the exposition is heavy but good, something action-movie fans need to be aware of.
Robert Ford is a rather creepy character, and for better or worse, Casey Affleck plays him well. Surprisingly, though, Pitt’s version of Jesse James is even more complex, as Pitt portrays James as a conflicted, mentally unstable and almost remorseful man — which historical documents show he actually was. Jesse James may be glorified for his train robberies, but the real Jesse James deserves more pity than esteem, if this story is to be believed. There’s no “spaghetti Western” here; Jesse James’ was a sad, sad story indeed.
The VC-1 encoding shows remarkable contrast, but this is largely due to the movie itself. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a high-contrast film, with black, white and shades of gray being the primary color palettes. Even skin tones appear cold and gray, with only a few color accents throughout the film drawing occasional attention to Pitt’s piercing blue eyes. This treatment was clearly intentional rather than a shortcoming of the film, because the quality of the transfer itself is top notch. Seldom, if ever, is there any indication of grain, and it would have really stood out in a film of this nature, considering the scenes unfold slowly and there’s never much “action” to cover up grain.
In a movie with character development, it’s not uncommon to have poor audio tracks, because the post-production house is more focused on nailing the dialogue than the environmental and supporting audio. Not so with The Assassination of Jesse James. From the cicadas and spurs to the birds and bullet casings, every minute detail is accounted for in this audio track, which really helps immerse you in the sad world of Jesse James and Robert Ford.
Unfortunately, there’s only one bonus feature. At 31:48 in length, The Assassination of Jesse James: Death of an Outlaw (480p) is a mixed bag in the quality department, with passable archival movie clips but extremely inconsistent “modern” interviews with the various Jesse James experts interviewed on camera, including the author of the book on which the movie is based. The featurette delivers good content, as it outlines Jesse James’ experiences during the Civil War and chronicles how his bushwhacker experiences twisted his mind and made him into the criminal he became. But I couldn’t help but imagine, at least when looking at the production values, that I was watching an old elementary-school educational film.
But really, I have to think that was part of the reason for releasing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in the first place. This was never destined to be an action-packed film, much like grade-school movies were never designed to win awards for ILM-quality special effects. This movie, like its source material book, was designed to paint a clear, complex picture not just of Jesse James, but of the ambitious, gregarious and some would say “cursed” man who killed him. In that regard, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford fires on all cylinders. But for A/V buffs and Blu-ray purists, this one might be firing a few blanks.
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- Score: 7.5
- Superb audio and all-star leading men are dragged down by a lack of bonus content and a story that, while good, should have been boiled down a bit more for the silver (and small) screen.
— Jonas Allen