Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Johnny Depp (William Blake), Gary Farmer (Nobody), Lance Henriksen (Cole Wilson), Michael Wincott (Conway Twill), Eugene Byrd (Johnny 'The Kid' Pickett), Crispin Glover (Train Fireman), John Hurt (John Scholfield), Robert Mitchum (John Dickinson), Iggy Pop (Salvatore 'Sally' Jenko), Jared Harris (Benmont Tench), Gabriel Byrne (Charlie Dickinson), Mili Avital (Thel Russell), Jimmie Ray Weeks (Marvin, Older Marshal), Mark Bringelson (Lee, Younger Marshal), Billy Bob Thornton (Big George Drakoulious), Alfred Molina (Trading Post Missionary).
Dead Man is an odd film. It’s an existential Western that paints a cold, violent, dark picture of the American West, basically concluding that the American West was a brutal place – and perhaps America hasn’t changed much since. The film is almost like a slow descent into hell. It’s a film that takes its time – as all Jarmusch films do – so if you’re not on its wavelength, the film is probably a long, dull slog. But if you are with Jarmusch, than the film is haunting – beautiful and mournful in between the sudden bursts of violence. To some it’s Jarmusch’s masterpiece, to others it’s one of his worst films. I’m more in the former camp than the later.
Johnny Depp stars as William Blake – not the poet - an accountant who is taking a long train ride from the big city of Cleveland way out to the end of line – a little town called Machine, where he has been promised a jump at the Dickinson Metal Works. The train ride that takes up the pre-credits sequence is like the film itself – long, slow, surreal at times, as everyone seems to be staring as Blake as if he’s an alien creature – which in some ways he is. Before he’s even arrived, the Train Fireman (Crispin Glover at his most Crispin Glover-esque) warns him away from Machine. But Blake doesn’t listen. He shows up at the Metal Works, and is told by John Scholfield (John Hurt) that he’s too late – the job has been filled. Blake is laughed at by Scholfield, and the rest of the office workers, but insists on seeing Mr. Dickenson himself. He is played by Robert Mitchum, in his last film role, a big bear of man, smoking a huge cigar, and wielding a shotgun. Blake quickly realizes his journey has been for nothing.
At the local bar he meets Thel Russell (Mili Avital) – a woman who sells paper flowers. Blake is nicer than the rest of the men of Machine – he doesn’t mock her, treat her like a whore, or throw her and her flowers in the mud. He ends up in her hotel room for the right. Early the next morning, Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne) – son of Mitchum – shows up. He was once Thel’s fiancé, and wants to patch things up. Things quickly go awry; shots are fired leaving Thel and Charlie dead, and Blake with a wound to the chest that should have killed him. He runs off into the wild, where he meets Nobody (Gary Farmer) – a Native who is an outsider even among other Natives, who thinks Blake is the poet – and decides to help him. He needs all the help he can get, because Dickinson has hired three assassins – Cole Wilson (Lance Henrickson), Conway Twill (Michael Wincott) and Johnny “The Kid” Pickett (Eugene Byrd) to track Blake down and kill him. The three aren’t thrilled to be working together, and are just as likely to kill each other as kill Blake.
Given his previous work, Dead Man marked a departure of sorts for Jarmusch – he’s working in a genre film for the first time (there are some hints of genre in Down By Law, but not entirely) – and he remains focused on a single character from beginning to end. Yet the film is still every inch a Jarmusch film. The gorgeous black and white photography by Robby Muller makes this the most visually stunning film of Jarmusch’s career. He still favors long takes though. The framing is a little off-kilter – nothing seems to be in the middle of the frame, giving the film a more surreal look. When the violence comes in the film – and it comes often – it’s quick, brutal and deadly. There are no protracted gun fights in Dead Man – I was reminded of a line in Ed Harris’ Appaloosa when his character was asked why the gunfight was over so quickly and he responds “Because everyone knew how to shoot”. That’s the case here as well – although sometimes, it ends quickly because the characters don’t really play fair with each other – killing them when they are not expecting it.
Johnny Depp’s performance is one of his finest. This was the period of his career before he became a huge, bankable movie star and was interested in doing odd, quirky little films and didn’t seem to care if they would make him a movie star. Now, he does almost nothing but huge blockbusters, and tries very hard to be odd and quirky in them all – but it’s wearing a little thin, as all of them start blending together as basically, they are all variations on Captain Jack Sparrow (tellingly, his last great performance was in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies – 2009 - where he mainly played it straight). Here, he’s got a baby face, and seems almost hopelessly naïve when the film begins – he doesn’t belong in Machine, which is the most alien city in Jarmusch’s filmography full of alien cities. He is a stranger in a world he doesn’t understand. Gradually, his William Blake learns the rules of land he inhabits, and becomes the vicious man he needs to become to survive. But by then it’s already too late. You can take the title of the movie a number of ways, but basically, I think Blake is dead pretty much the moment he’s shot by Charlie – he just doesn’t realize it yet. He goes from a man who comically takes shot after shot at Charlie before getting lucky and hits him, into being a crack shot with his gun. Nobody views him with a kind of pity as the pair makes their way West to the Pacific Ocean. Farmer is Depp’s match in terms of weirdness – his talk is profane, yet witty and funny – and he seems to be smiling to himself often – as if he’s in on a joke that Blake hasn’t gotten yet.
Jarmusch surrounds these two with the oddest assortment of characters imaginable – from Crispin Glover looking and sounding like something released from the bowels of hell, to John Hurt’s laughing maniac, to Mitchum who is great, as always, by just being Mitchum – to the trio of hit men on their trial. The most brutal of the three is Lance Henrickson, who doesn’t say much, but doesn’t have to – when the rumor about you is that you raped, killed and ate both of your parents, you don’t need to say much to look menacing. Michael Wincott, as one of the other assassins, almost never shuts up putting him at odds with Henrickson from the start. Then there’s the odd scene with three fur trappers – Jared Harris, Billy Bob Thornton and Iggy Pop, in a frontier dress, which is as odd as it sounds.
The most remarkable thing about Dead Man is how it maintains its surreal tone throughout the film. The cinematography helps, as does Neil Young’s guitar and feedback heavy score. As the film winds down, it becomes more wordless, moves a little bit slower than a pace that to many was already too slow – yet remains utterly transfixing. This is Jarmusch at his best. He offers a bleak worldview, for the first time not tempered with humor, and delivers a portrait of the West we haven’t really seen before or since. It’s one of the few Western post-Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) that really gives us something different. When Depp discovers a gun under Thel’s pillow he asks her what she has it for. “This is America” she tells him as if it explains everything. To Jarmusch, it does. His Dead Man paints a bleak, brutal, violent picture of the American West – and it’s one of his best films.