I am a sucker for a good biopic. Walk the Line, Ray, Man on the Moon, Cinderella Man… all these films and many more like them feature prominently in my DVD collection. With this release, I am now excited to be able to add this fine film to my collection. Brad Pitt’s James is not the one of fables and adventure books, but one grounded in reality. While charismatic criminals are frequently glorified in these types of films, it is often times hard to remember that in real life these are often times people with severe social problems. The result is a film that is more open and honest than the vast majority of the biopics that have come along in the past decade.
While Brad Pitt is perfectly adequate as Jesse James, this is really Casey Affleck’s movie. I am not naive enough to think that a major Hollywood star is not required to sell a big-budget summer movie, and Brad Pitt is about as big of a box office draw as there is. Once the audience is in the seat, however, there better be a good film to back it up. That’s where Affleck comes in. This is a simply groundbreaking performance that is very worthy of the Academy Award nomination it garnered. Affleck plays the troubled criminal with an amazing honesty that never insults or disrespects the character. It’s simply inspired stuff.
The video quality on this high definition disc is first rate. The transfer features predictably deep black levels and crisp, sharp white highlights. The whole thing is wrapped up in some absolutely beautiful cinematography. The look is something simultaneously modern and classic. Like a beautiful, colorful tintype come to life. Many shots are purposefully blurred around the edges, while Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ camera is also not afraid to point the viewer’s eyes exactly where he wants them by slowly shifting the focus from one object to the next. It is a beautiful film that has raised the bar for how period films should look.
I was quite impressed by the manner in which this film utilized audio to fully tell the story. Not only is the foley first-rate, but the gorgeous, haunting score adds a sense of foreboding to the entirety of the film. The film’s audio is surprisingly subdued for such a story, so when a loud moment such as a gunshot finally does happen, it breaks the silence with jolt that is very much appreciated.
Amazingly, there is exactly one special feature on this disc; a documentary called The Assassination of Jesse James: Death of an Outlaw. At least it is a high-quality piece. It feels very much like a documentary that might have been created for the History Channel. However, it appears to me that this is an all-new documentary featurette, and it is filled with not only historians and filmmakers, but also plenty of real photographs of the characters from the film, all rendered in beautiful High Definition. This featurette runs a little over 30-minutes in length.
At one point in the film, Jesse James asks Robert Ford, “Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?” Undoubtedly, this is a question Pitt has asked himself many times before of people much like Casey Affleck. To me, the interesting story is not Pitt’s criminal nature, it is the obsessive nature of Affleck. This is not the film that I expected. It is something much deeper and more fascinating.
Update: Shortly after posting my review, I received an email from a descendant of Jesse James who runs a web site about the family. He is a very pleasant fellow, and I was quite pleased to hear that the family feels that this is the most accurate film portrayal available of their infamous ancestor. To read their take on the film, visit this link.