Isn't there a law in Hollywood forbidding movie titles that are too long to fit on a marquee? Maybe not. But there ought to be. I can think of only a few exceptions: "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"; "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"; "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"; "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." But these were all comedies, and they could get away with it. However, the 2007 release "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is hardly a comedy. In any case, it's got a title that perfectly matches its subject matter: They're both too long by half.
Although this movie is a big-budget affair with a notable cast that includes Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard, Michael Parks, even James Carville, Warner Bros. chose to release it in a limited run and then pulled it rather quickly. As a result, it didn't come near any motion-picture theaters in my area, so I watched it for the first time on DVD. This is a shame because it looks as though a person should really see the movie on a big screen; its visual splendor is the best part of the show.
In "The Assassination of Jesse James" writer and director Andrew Dominik ("Chopper"), who adapted the screenplay from a book by Ron Hansen, and director of photography Roger Deakins seem to have striven consciously to make an art-house picture, which isn't a bad thing. Sure, I know that characterization may not even be accurate, but what I mean by it is that the filmmakers seem to have purposely emphasized aesthetics, character relationships, tone, and sparse conversations over pure action. If it's action you want in your Jesse James saga, try "The Long Riders." Dominik's version wants you to look at and admire the atmosphere, the mood, and the scenery, all whilst you ruminate on the vagaries of the dialogue. Be that as it may, it seems to me that Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah already did this kind of thing in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" and did it better.
Anyway, clearly the filmmakers mean for "The Assassination of Jesse James" to be a poetic evocation of the legendary outlaw, an elegy, if you will, and even the characters in the movie speak poetically. The photography is wide, grand, and imposing, sensitively composed, with hints of blur and mist and soft, pastel shadings. You'll find a multitude of wide open spaces and handsome landscapes, plus any number of seeming digressions amidst an abundance of quiet moments. The soundtrack music is lyrical as well, soft and slow, mostly solo piano. And like a lot of poetry, the film moves slowly, deliberately, albeit sometimes too leisurely along.
What's more, we get a voice-over narration. Oddly, the film does not show us as much of the plot line as it might, instead telling us much of it, with a narrator speaking over the visuals. In a way, then, the movie comes off like an artistic documentary; yet with its abundance of fine actors, it seems something of a puzzle why the filmmakers didn't let the characters reveal to us more of their own story. So, the narrator starts by telling us about Jesse: "He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to."
The tale begins on Sept. 7, 1881, near Blue Cut, Missouri, just before the James gang's final big railroad holdup. Jesse was thirty-four years old, and it would be one more year before Bob Ford gunned him down. The movie covers that final year.
By this time all the original members of the James gang but Jesse and his brother Frank were dead or in prison, and it's now that Bob Ford tries to join up. Bob's brother Charley was already a member of the gang, and young Bob, nineteen, wanted more than anything to ride with them. Why? As Bob explains it, he's been a nobody all his life and wants to be a somebody. But more particularly, it's because he has a case of hero worship going. Ever since Bob was a kid he was obsessed with Jesse, having collected every dime novel and every newspaper and magazine clipping about him. He wants to be just like Jesse. He wants to be Jesse.
Brad Pitt plays Jesse in a half-smoldering, half-scowling manner that shows the actor is trying his best to make people take him seriously. Now, if only the script had given him something more to say. As it is, this Jesse is a warmhearted family man on the one hand and a cold-blooded killer on the other. But the script never provides any reasons for the dichotomy. Pitt's Jesse is an eternal enigma, a man who regrets the life he's led, changing his name to Thomas Howard, moving from place to place in his final years, and becoming ever more paranoid by the day. With a price on his head, he trusts no one, especially not his old partners. Jesse is continually suspicious, ambiguous, and melancholy, a man contemplating the meaninglessness of his life, a man often on the verge of suicide. Indeed, the movie suggests that Jesse may have even prompted his own death by providing Bob Ford the gun and the opportunity to kill him.
Casey Affleck is impressive as the central character, Robert Ford. We can feel the pain in his eyes when Jesse and Frank turn him down for a place in the gang, when Jesse fails to respond to his need for friendship, when the law asks him to keep an eye on Jesse, and when he finally turns the gun on his idol.
Then, too, the cast handles the smaller parts well, like Sam Rockwell as Bob's older brother Charley, a goofy sort who becomes more depressed as the story goes on, and Sam Shepard in a small role as Frank James, a tough, crotchety sort.
All of this would have worked better, however, if the thing weren't so long. "The Assassination of Jesse James" goes on for 160 minutes, most of it talk. Sure, there are some interesting conversations and the scenery is gorgeous and the silences are telling. But in the end, we get the feeling that the filmmakers have spent an awfully long time telling a simple and familiar story, with few or no new insights.
For a standard-definition release, the picture quality is good, and upscaled (which I tried for a few minutes) it's even better. Using a reasonably high bit rate and an anamorphic transfer, WB's video engineers maintain the film's original 2.40:1 aspect ratio and ensure that everything on the screen gets topflight treatment. The director seems to have intentionally drained the colors slightly to provide a colder, gloomier, and at the same time more old-timey feel, and the images come off a touch glassy. Other than that, facial tones are fairly natural, even though they are a bit washed out, and object delineation is reasonably sharp. Film grain is minimum.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack displays an ample front-channel stereo spread and a wide-ranging frequency response, with an impressively robust bass line. The audio engineers use the rear channels effectively for gunshots, crowd noises, and musical ambience reinforcement, but it's never overdone, meaning it's rather thin along these lines. The music is most always a quiet piano, as I've said, and the violence is far less than you might imagine. Midrange detailing is fine, and highs, when present on occasion, sparkle.
If you're looking for extras, there aren't any. No major extras, anyhow. I guess WB figured the movie being so long and transferred at such a high bit rate, it took up too much space for anything else. Or they didn't have anything else to include. Who knows. What we get are a few trailers for other Warner products at start-up only; thirty-seven scene selections but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" comes through in the end, its final thirty minutes at least partially justifying one's time. But that first two hours and ten minutes can sometimes become more than a little tedious.
"Well, Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life,
Three children they were brave,
But that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave."