The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Warner Bros. Pictures
Movie •••• Picture •••• Sound ••••½ Extras ••½

"Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified."

Those lines of narration in the opening minutes set the tone for director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik's languid and poetic film. The Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford presents the relationship between one of the most important figures in America's Old West and his eventual assassin as a Shakespearean tragedy transported to Reconstruction-era Missouri. The pacing of this movie won't appeal to everyone - at 2 hours and 40 minutes, it takes its time getting where it's going - but patient viewers will be happily drawn into its world. As Jesse and Robert, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck are well cast and very good here, as are the supporting players. But Sam Shepherd almost walks off with the movie in a small role as Jesse's weathered older brother, Frank.

Visually, this is a challenging film, and the Blu-ray Disc transfer excels. True to the period, interiors are candle-lit and sepia-toned - and in these scenes, image detail and color rendition are excellent, with rich, warm golds and flesh tones and exceptional contrast between lights and darks. Faces are often spotlit, but there's enough detail in the shadows behind the characters to keep the dimensional planes from collapsing. Exteriors, particularly the winter scenes of outlaws riding through snowy terrain, are equally well rendered, with plenty of contrast and no perceptible image washout.

And the sound? This is Dolby Digital 5.1 done absolutely right. The lively 360° soundscape is on display early and often - starting in the woods where Jesse first meets his executioner. As Robert trudges through a forest where the James Gang has decamped, branches bend underfoot, the men tell their bawdy stories offscreen, and cooking fires spit and crackle. When we first hear Jesse's voice somewhere in the foreground, we're led there sonically as the camera approaches. Voice timbres, Foley effects, and the fine punctuating music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are all extremely crisp and well placed throughout the film.

The lone extra is a 30-minute featurette that fills in some relevant historical info on the James Gang. It has discussion from Dominik, most of the cast, and various Jesse biographers, including Ron Hansen, upon whose work of historical fiction this fine film is based.

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