Combustible Celluloid
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With: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Mili Avital, Crispin Glover, Gabriel Byrne, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, John Hurt, Alfred Molina, Robert Mitchum
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
MPAA Rating: R for moments of strong violence, a graphic sex scene and some language
Running Time: 121
Date: 05/25/1995

Dead Man (1996)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Stupid F---ing White Man

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I had the opportunity to watch Dead Man with its director himself, Jim Jarmusch. Of course, he was sitting all the way across the room in a special roped-off section, and there were several hundred other people in the room, and it was the San Francisco International Film Festival. But still, sometimes during the film I sat there and wondered, "what was Jarmusch thinking just then?", and he wasn't thousands of miles away. He was in the room with me.

Dead Man is a very poetic film that has some plot, but what matters most is the telling, and not the details. Still and all, if you don't want to know about this film, don't read any further.

The plot concerns a young accountant named William Blake (not the poet), played by Johnny Depp, who journeys to the town of Machine to work at Dickinson's Metal Works. When he gets there, his job has already been filled. He spends a night with a local girl, who turns out to be Dickinson's son's fiancee. The son (played by Gabriel Byrne) shows up and shoots the girl and Blake. Blake shoots him back, steals a horse, and hits the road. Dickinson hires a trio of killers to go after Blake and bring back the horse. He wakes up to find a Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) digging in his chest with a knife. Nobody informs him that the bullet is lodged next to his heart and that he is a dead man.

The rest of the movie is a dreamy journey through the woods, following Blake and Nobody (who mistakes him for the poet) going no place in particular. Basically, yes, Blake is going to die, and the movie is his journey toward that death. Along the way, he finds many things. Not quite redemption, but other things, compassion, violence, faith. A lesser director would have presented this material as the same, tired old tale it is (outlaw on the lam), but here it's a visual, poetic journey not unlike Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

The movie is written and directed by, of course, Jim Jarmusch, whose feature films up till now have all been made up of self-contained episodes in some form or another. (His debut Stranger Than Paradise (1984) was actually began as a short film that he added onto.) This is his first attempt at a feature narrative. But at the same time, it does not follow the rules of narrative. It plays a little like some of Godard's experimental works, such as Pierrot le Fou.

Even though I've mentioned Francis Coppola and Jean-Luc Godard, Dead Man is completely a product of Jarmusch's singular vision. Some of his benchmarks are here, fading to black between each scene, crisp, black and white photography. But, he tries new things here as well. As odd as his earlier films are, they are all rooted in reality. Dead Man takes place in a dream state. To drive this home, we see several shots of Blake falling asleep or passing out from pain, hunger or exhaustion. By the end of the film, the images we see are dazed and dreamy.

Although the film is downbeat, we get several scenes of Jarmusch's quirky humor (the word "quirky" seems to have been invented for him). We get Robert Mitchum, stealing the first part of the movie in a bit part as Dickinson. Lance Henriksen plays a killer who utters maybe five words in the entire movie. John Hurt plays a whacked out accountant in Dickinson's office. Iggy Pop plays a strange mother-type character in drag out in the woods, with Billy Bob Thornton ("I can't drink whiskey like a usta could") as one of his cronies. And if that isn't enough, we get Crispin "what-am-I-doing-walking-the- streets-among-decent-people" Glover in one scene. Johnny Depp himself adds another oddball character to his charming canon. He is a wonderful actor who completely covers himself up in his parts, which can be both amusing and limiting. At one point in the movie, he is on a train, wearing a funny hat, filmed in black and white, and he reminded me of Buster Keaton, just for a moment. (Very high praise, coming from me.) These characters seem to exist to support Jarmucsh's universe rather than to startle the viewer, such as in David Lynch's Wild at Heart.

Dead Man is scored by Neil Young, who lets loud, amplified electric guitar strains settle in among the pictures. The music is limited, but effective in the same way that Ennio Morricone's music works for Leone's westerns, and also in the way that Dick Dale's "Misirlou" works in Pulp Fiction. The movie is photographed in black and white by the great cinematographer Robby Muller, who always brings a grainy, independent spirit to any movie he works on.Muller photographed Breaking the Waves the same year, and was singled out by the National Society of Film Critics.

Quirky though it is, Dead Man is a western. Blake's first walk through the town of Machine is a sort of tribute to Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, complete with the guy building a coffin and a quick appearance by Gibby Haynes. But other than that, its not like any other western. It's not an easy film to watch, and I predict that a lot of people will call it "joyless". But, I also predict that with the passing of time, this movie will settle in and find a place as a cinema classic.

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