NOTE: Dead Man has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Commenting is closed on this review, which is left here for archival purposes. Please visit Dead Man‘s Certified Weird entry to comment on this film.
DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch
PLOT: Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west, becomes a wanted man after he
shoots a man in self defense, and, wounded, flees to the wilderness where he’s befriended by an Indian named Nobody who believes he is the poet William Blake.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Dead Man is a lyrical and hypnotic film, and one that comes about as achingly close to making the List on the first pass as is possible. The quality of the movie is no obstacle to its making the List, but the weirdness, while there, is subtle and must be teased out by the viewer. There is a mystical and dreamlike tinge to Blake’s journey into death, but the strangeness is almost entirely tonal; Jarmusch’s artiness aside, it’s possible to view the movie as a rather straightforward, if quirky, indie Western.
COMMENTS: Dead Man begins on a locomotive as a naif accountant is traveling from Cleveland to a the western town of Machine to begin a new life. We see him on the train playing solitaire or reading a booklet on beekeeping. He looks up to survey at his fellow passengers, who meet his glance with indifference. The train’s whistle blows as the scene fades to black, accompanied by twanging chords from Neil Young’s guitar (sounding like abstract, electrified snippets stolen from a Morricone score). The scene repeats and fades back in again and again, each time with the traveler glancing around the compartment to find his companions slowly changing: their dress becomes more rustic, their hair longer and more unkempt; female passengers become less frequent, firearms more common; the indifference in their eyes turns into quiet hostility.
Dead Man tells the story of an innocent who becomes a refugee after being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a standard story, but the way Jarmusch tells can be strange indeed. This opening scene sets the rhythm for the movie: it proceeds in a series of slow pulses punctuated by fadeouts and anguished bursts from Young’s guitar, and it slowly shifts locale from the civilized to the wild. The continual fading out and fading back in makes it seem like the movie is drifting in and out of consciousness; after it’s protagonist is fatally wounded, early on, this is a particularly appropriate motif. The tale is a series of journeys: the journey to the wild west from the civilized east, Blake’s flight into the wilderness, his wanderings with his Indian companion Nobody in the forests of the Pacific northwest as he is hunted by bounty hunters, and his final canoe journey into the ocean. It’s also the journey of a man from innocence to experience and, more importantly, from life to death, or perhaps from death to afterlife.
Dead Man begs an allegorical reading, as powerfully as it resists one. Jarmusch sets up an obvious dichotomy between civilization and white men (generally bad) and nature and Indians (generally good) inside the mythic structure of a hero’s journey. The English poet and painter William Blake, who came out of the most “civilized” nation in the world but whose sensibility of mystical simplicity made him an outsider among his own people, represents a sort of a bridge between the two worlds. The character William Blake, the accountant, whom Nobody insists is the dead poet, flees from white man’s civilization into the wild. With the aid of Nobody—himself is an outcast caught between the European and the native worlds—Blake is eventually accepted into the Indian culture, as he breaks with his own people by becoming “a killer of white men.” Ultimately, his destiny is to travel even farther west, father from civilization, all the way into the bosom of the Pacific.
That journey from corrupting complexity into peaceful simplicity is the basic structure of Blake’s voyage, and it obviously suggests a spiritual journey. The title suggests that the trip is a postmortem one. Although there is no reason to doubt the literal story—that Blake comes to Machine, is shot, meets Nobody as he is fleeing white man’s justice, then eventually dies from his wounds—it’s possible, and thematically reasonable, to consider the idea that Blake is actually dead through much of the movie. It’s easy to suspect that Blake dies the first time he is shot: Nobody, who often accepts the impossible as real, suggests as much with his chilling words when he first meets Blake: “did you kill the white man who killed you?” It’s even possible to see Blake as a dead man from the first minute he steps foot on the train. The locomotive fireman with his coal-blackened face and oddly prophetic pronouncements suggests that the town of Machine the accountant is traveling to is Hell. Although specific spiritual lessons are difficult to divine from the tale, Blake’s entire journey from Machine to the ocean could be seen as the voyage of a dead soul from the gates of Hell through Purgatory to Paradise.
The mainstream film fanatic will find those vague, mystical speculations of less interest than Dead Man‘s once-in-a-lifetime, multi-generational cast. The film is headlined by Johnny Depp in that thrilling post-heartthrob period where he was taking every risky and offbeat role that came his way—and nailing them all. Character actor Gary Farmer lands the role of a lifetime as crusty medicine man Nobody; fellow character actor Lance Henriksen, who always seemed like he was born to play a heavy in a Western, gets his chance here. Dependable Michael Wincott provides welcome comic relief. Quirky Crispin Glover adds another weirdo to his repertoire with his illiterate, portentous railroad employee, who may be the brakeman on Charon’s locomotive. Cadaverous non-actor Iggy Pop adds a touch of novelty as a frontiersman in drag. Rising stars Gabriel Byrne (as a forlorn lover) and Billy Bob Thornton (a year before Sling Blade) contribute small but memorable parts. The great John Hurt leaves us wanting more in his near cameo role as middle-management at the Machine concern. All of this remarkable assembly contributes something without anyone hogging the spotlight, but the most of the publicity centered around septuagenarian superstar Robert Mitchum, who commanded the two scenes he appeared in as a frontier tycoon. Delivering iconic genre lines like “the only job you’re goin’ to get is pushing up daisies from a pine box!,” a role as a villainous patriarch in a Western seems like the perfect capper to Mitchum’s storied career. It wasn’t quite his final role, but it should have been.
Due to the crowd of interesting thespians, it would be tempting to consider Dead Man as an actor’s movie, but, for better or worse, Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic direction overwhelms everything. As usual with this director, the technical qualities of the film are superlative. The high contrast black and white cinematography (courtesy of Robby Müller) captures the grime and decay of the city as well as the luminous beauty of a white birch forest, and Young’s guitar score is as spare and forlorn as the Pacific wilderness. Jarmusch’s method of fading in and out of scenes adds a dreamlike feel, and his deliberate pacing suits the majestic material this time around, coming across as more solemn than slow. This Western features the most languid shootouts ever committed to film; characters calmly aim and reload their guns without fanfare, or stand fatalistically waiting to be gunned down. Although the lack of music cues, closeups and other methods of dramatically highlighting violence is probably a realistic depiction of combat, the casualness of the technique is so unexpected in a genre picture that it creates an almost unreal aura. And, as expected, Jarmusch fills his canvas with some of the quirkiest, strangest characters you’d ever hope to see in an oater, including not only a trio of blackly comic foresters and the poetry-spouting Nobody, but also a loquacious bounty hunter who carries a teddy bear, and another one who’s the worst kind of cannibal.
On it’s release, Dead Man received mostly negative reviews. It was criticized as too slow and too pretentious, appearing to be thoughtful but actually delivering no ideas worth mentioning. Time has been kind to the movie, however, which has emerged as Jarmusch’s best work to date. In Dead Man, a measured journey into an odd, somber, dark and funny wilderness of the spirot, Jarmusch created a myth with staying power. Filled with poetic images like Johnny Depp reclining with a slaughtered fawn, Dead Man has proven a mysterious power to linger in the memory. It may never yield up its meaning, but that doesn’t make it empty.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…begins with a display of grotesquerie that is so sensational it sets up expectations that the movie might be the surreal last word on the Hollywood western and its mythic legacy. Those expectations, unfortunately, are not fulfilled. The film’s energy begins to flag after less than an hour, and as its pulse slackens it turns into a quirky allegory, punctuated with brilliant visionary flashes that partially redeem a philosophic ham-handedness.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)