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</script></div>{/googleAds}There is an errant gaze to Casey Affleck's Robert Ford that seems to dart around the screen — a perfect complement, or rather, a perfect contrast to Jesse James (Brad Pitt), whose unwavering, piercing stare holds minute wisps of madness and unshakable calm. These two titular characters are the yin and yang, a kind of new Old West dichotomy that rethinks the mythology and historical vagaries of a legendary outlaw and killer who was nonetheless a family man and fierce friend.

Andrew Dominic's adaption of Ron Hansen's 1983 novel is remarkable in its depiction of James's internal life versus his external one, even while its portentousness sometimes feels a bit staged. While the narrative is never told from James's perspective, his actions and behavior cast an ever-present moodiness upon every scene, and his almost schizophrenic manner of interaction is digressed upon by the narrator (Hugh Ross), who recounts James's personal quirks and features while speculating on his apparent impact on the lives of those men who surround him, including the impressionable young Ford.

Opening on a train robbery reveals the inclement storms of James's violent tendencies, which border on psychotic, as well as the good-natured friendliness which he sometimes displayed. He takes in Robert Ford, who ingratiates himself with James as a man who has followed James's career through pulp novels and newspaper scraps. Robert's brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) is a dimwit who understands Robert's obsession with Jesse James even while mocking him for it — after all, Charley is as much a disciple of James as anyone. Along with the other spindly, ragtag scoundrels Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) and Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), the Ford brothers rely on James not only as a gang leader but as a personal icon, devotees of the legend of James and revelers in his reflected glory.

The film persistently queries the line between the media myth of James versus the actual man. The true Jesse James was hardly a western Robin Hood, despite some media accounts of his supposed largess, though he was not entirely the monster of penal lore either. Pitt performs the balancing act extremely well (as he has done with similar characters, such as Jeffrey in 12 Monkeys), showing paranoia-fueled outbursts and strange, almost elegiac pondering nearly side by side, constantly alert for betrayal, but emotive and playful at times.

Affleck blends stuttering shyness with boyish sincerity in a role that is really far more interesting than that of Jesse James. His journey from super-fan to intellectual betrayer is one largely propelled by the withering of Ford's own personal mythological understanding of James. As the two grow close, Jesse James seems to understand Ford better than he understands himself. During a moment of chiaroscuro-like clarity, James asks of Ford, "You want to be like me, or you want to be me?"

But this is contrasted with the somewhat heavy-handed portrayal of James as an icon of the West that detracts most from the film. Dominic seems intent on giving him a martyr's stare in certain long sequences, as if we're meant to sympathize and identify with his paranoid outbursts and small-minded meanness. He makes a mockery of his men, who placate him rather than become his enemy, but the sense of the film as a whole is that this is justifiable on all ends. James deserves praise for being the legendary outlaw, while his oafish men deserve their ridicule because they at least basked in his sunny dispositions when he was largehearted.

The film is masterfully photographed by Roger Deakins, though western cinematography is not especially difficult to make look incredible. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is surprisingly sedate and not especially inventive. While it echoes their earlier work from The Proposition, it seems a feathery, fainter showing of their talents, and sometimes feels a bit stagnant and overused.

Dominic is to be credited for trying to make a western that plays by new rules and tells a different story. He does a wonderful job of keeping us interested. If he could cut down the running time and reduce the number of rugged Brad Pitt magazine cover shots, he might just have a dominating Oscar force on his hands.
Well Worth It.


DVD Details:

Not sure what Warner Bros. was thinking here. Surpisingly bereft of any special features (other than a few trailers for other Warner Bros. titles), they fail to capitalize on what should have been an Oscar® season reawakening for this film - a chance to ride the recognition of its release into the big party. How nice would it have been to get a little insight into how Casey Affleck approached his character's subtleties? Or what about an historical timeline of Jesse James's life (with selectable photos and datelines?) But instead, we get a sparklingly crisp transfer of a truly remarkable film that will unfortunately ride off into the sunset of Blockbuster's catalog shelves. Oh... what could have been!

Perhaps Warner's dearth of features is a direct by-product of the amount of time spent on the digital transfer to DVD. As mentioned above, the transfer is one of the best you'll ever see. That "bleachy" look of Roger Deakins's cinematography deserved max attention here and he clearly received it. The blacks are nice and dark, the whites are bright and everything else in between is clean and crisp. Perhaps such a high-quality transfer of such a long film left little room for any other features. Look for a double-dip in the next 6 months.

The audio treatment is handled quite well too. But it's a movie meant to be seen not heard. Even so, full-range of the 5.1 spectrum is utilized appropriately, especially during the gunfight scenes. Bullets snap across the room when fired from the loudest six-shooters you'll ever hear. The back speakers of your home theater will get a solid workout as shots are fired from all directions. I did notice one particular bullet tracer sound effect that was dubbed into the audio no fewer than three times. It's a ricochet shot that whistles across the back of the room. Very effective, but should have been altered slightly so as to disguise its repetition.

Screen formats: Widescreen Anamorphic 1.85:1

Subtitles: English; French; Spanish; Closed-captioned

Language and Sound: English: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo

Other Features: Color; interactive menus; scene access.

Chapter Selections: 37 total

* 1. Prologue Portrait; 2. Appetite for Greater Things; 3. Call Me Gregarious; 4. Petty Thieves and Rubes; 5. Blue Cut Robbery; 6. No More Shananigans; 7. Cigars and Lies; 8. Names of Enemies; 9. Sent Home; 10. Threats and Mysteries; 11. My Daddy's Wife; 12. Jesse Stops By; 13. Where's Jim; 14. Shootin' Scrape; 15. Snow Grave; 16. Overlapping Stories; 17. Acting Testy; 18. Catch Up With Miller; 19. No Peace When He's Around; 20 Craig Rifle's Ball; 21; Cup of Iniquity; 22. Other Side of the Ice; 23. You've Been Chosen; 24. Just a Human Being; 25. Creed Up From Behind; 26. By Way of Apology; 27. Imaining Himself; 28. April 3, 1882; 29. News Report; 30. Assassination; 31. Final Shots; 32. Stage Portrayal; 33. Charley's Final Curtain; 34. I'm Robert Ford; 35. No Applause; 36. No Eulogies; 37. End Credits.

Number of discs: - 1- Keepcase Packaging