The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was one of the more criminally under-viewed films in a year populated by widely praised under-viewed films. The power of Assassination was due, in large part, to its lack of reliance on any one aspect of filmmaking. For instance, it can’t simply be classified as a Western. Instead, it’s a character study of two men, one fraught with paranoia due to his own largesse; the other driven by jealousy and a craven desire to be appreciated or recognized. The film also didn’t rely on standard filming techniques, instead employing the Coens’ secret weapon, one Roger Deakins. At times scenes look as if we’re viewing them through an actual viewfinder into the past rather than a digital motion picture camera. Finally, director Andrew Dominik, a New Zealander, (and oddly, the third New Zealander coming up in reviews I’m writing this week) opted not for a score, and not for songs, but a masterful combination of both from Aussie neighbors Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
Cave and Ellis designed the music for Assassination to stand on its own, outside the world of the film, and boy, does it ever! Each track flows one into another, lonely, evocative tunes that haunt the listener at every bow stroke or piano key strike. This shouldn’t be a surprise to any longtime Cave fan who have, over the last twelve years, watched and heard a magical bond forming between him and Ellis as they performed in the Bad Seeds, Grinderman, and on the equally astounding soundtrack for The Proposition. The desolate, yet delicate sounds they create together for Assassination perfectly fit the tone of the film, which should be the ultimate goal for any composer. The opener “Rather Lovely Thing” has the perfect title, as it is exactly that. It sets the scene immediately, as a more paced and emotional drama rather than an action-packed, gunfight-laden oater, such as the enjoyable yet predictable 3:10 to Yuma.
“Song for Jesse,” a track to correspond with the more famous title character as played by Brad Pitt, magically captures the complexity that Pitt brought to the role, the most impressive since Twelve Monkeys. Ethereal bells, piano and celeste combine to, in effect, highlight the childlike and troubled mind of the gang leader that seems able to talk to anyone but trust no one. The corresponding “Song for Bob,” the closer of the album, is far more rooted in elegiac themes. And although he’s the one who survives, as the `assassin’ in the intentionally revelatory title, his story is the sadder of the two and the more central one. You’d probably have to see the film to know what I mean (and it’s out on DVD, so what’s stopping you?), but there really are no winners in this film, and that’s what this music ultimately conveys. This isn’t like Young Guns (though the impressive cast list makes it seem like it could be), with outlaws going out in a truly `filmic’ blaze of glory. This film captures life as it truly is and most likely was, slow moving, methodical and psychological with flaws eventually tearing apart a center that could not hold in the first place.
Every track on this soundtrack is a thing of beauty, from the opening echoing piano notes of “Rather Lovely Thing” to the gorgeous sweeping and weeping strings of “Song for Bob”; from the more period era twang of “Cowgirl” to the more modern dramatic score feel of “What Happens Next.” It’s somewhat unfortunate that we don’t get to hear (or hear again, if you’ve seen the film), Cave’s barroom cameo song about the title characters, which reminded me of the song “Hero of Canton” from the “Jaynestown” episode of Firefly. But, that song would have been sorely out of place amidst this thematic landscape, leaving it somewhat marred in the effort. Instead, we’re treated to the distillation of music that comes from a dark, foreboding and regretful place, and it’s so moving it can make you cry.
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – The Proposition Soundtrack
Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood
Greg Edmondson – Firefly Soundtrack