Nick Cave, heretofore best known for his work with the Australian band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, has recently developed a flourishing side career as a composer of film scores. It started with Win Wenders using a couple of his songs in Wings of Desire, which led to his songs being used in a wide variety of movies from, Shriek II to the Scream franchise. But Cave has lately grown from merely providing songs to composing whole soundtracks, first in the bleak Australian western The Proposition (for which he also wrote the screenplay) and here, in the melancholy American western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Cave has proved a remarkably effective soundtrack composer, mostly because his movie music is not much different from his rock music. Both have their basis in American roots music and Cave's doleful pianos, mournful acoustic guitars, and keening fiddles (provided by co-composer Warren Ellis) in both The Proposition and in The Assassination are of a piece with his earlier music, only without words. And his predilection for minor keys, sparse textures, yearning melodies, and funereal tempos is likewise similar to his rock music. But the most important quality of Cave as a film composer, like the most important quality of any film composer, is his ability to use his music to intensify the action onscreen. Here, the sorrow, the tragedy, and, in the end, the pity of The Assassination is amply enhanced by Cave's score. No higher use -- and no higher praise -- for a film score is possible.
Played mostly by Cave and Ellis, though with occasional assistance from a band and string section, the performances are of a piece with the score, and Warner Brothers' richly evocative sound is absolutely appropriate.