Tag Archives: Billy Bob Thornton

86. DEAD MAN (1995)

“Do what you will this life’s a fiction,
And is made up of contradiction.”

–William Blake, Gnomic Verses

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, , Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, , , Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avatal, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT: Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west to take a job as an accountant in the wild town of Machine, but when he arrives he discovers the position has been filled and he is stuck on the frontier with no money or prospects. Blake becomes a wanted man after he kills the son of the town tycoon in self defense. Wounded, he flees to the wilderness where he’s befriended by an Indian named Nobody, who believes he is the poet William Blake.

Still from Dead Man (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Blake, the namesake of Johnny Depp’s character in Dead Man, was a poet, painter and mystic who lived from 1757 to 1827. Best known for Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, he is considered one of the forerunners of English Romanticism.
  • Jarmusch wrote the script with Depp and Farmer in mind for the leads.
  • Elements of the finished script of Dead Man reportedly bear a striking similarity to “Zebulon,” an unpublished screenplay by novelist/screenwriter Rudy (Glen and Randa, Two-Lane Blacktop) Wurlitzer, which Jarmusch had read and discussed filming with the author. Wurlitzer later reworked the script into the novel The Drop Edge of Yonder.
  • Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum coined the term “acid Western”—a category in which he also included The Shooting, Greaser’s Palace and El Topo—to describe Dead Man. Jarmusch himself called the film a “psychedelic Western.”
  • composed the harsh, starkly beautiful soundtrack by improvising on electric guitar while watching the final cut of the film. The Dead Man soundtrack (buy) includes seven solo guitar tracks from Young, plus film dialogue and clips of Depp reciting William Blake’s poetry.
  • Farmer speaks three Native American languages in the film: Blackfoot, Cree, and Makah (which he learned to speak phonetically). None of the indigenous dialogue is subtitled.
  • Jarmusch, who retains all the rights to his films, refused to make cuts to Dead Man requested by distributor Miramax; the director believed that the film was dumped on the market without sufficient promotion because of his reluctance to play along with the studio.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nobody peering through William Blake’s skin to his bare skull during his peyote session? Iggy Pop in a prairie dress? Those are memorable moments, but in a movie inspired by poetry, it’s the scene of wounded William Blake, his face red with warpaint, curling up on the forest floor with a dead deer that’s the most poetically haunting.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dead Man is a lyrical and hypnotic film, with a subtle but potent and lingering weirdness that the viewer must tease out.  It’s possible to view the movie merely as a directionless, quirky indie Western; but that would be to miss out on the mystical, dreamlike tinge of this journey into death.


Original trailer for Dead Man

COMMENTS: Dead Man begins on a locomotive as a naif accountant is traveling from Continue reading 86. DEAD MAN (1995)

SHORT: SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE (1994)

DIRECTED BY:  George Hickenlooper

FEATURING Billy Bob Thornton, J.T. Walsh, Molly Ringwald, Jefferson Mays, Suzanne Cryer

PLOT: A peek inside an asylum for the criminally insane as a mentally retarded double

murderer chats with a diabolical fellow inmate before being interviewed by a newspaper reporter on the day of his release.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade is a short film with unusual subject matter.  The viewer is treated to a vignette portrait of a murderer in an insane asylum.  There is a glimpse of his twisted companion, and a look at the sorts of confused, eccentric bureaucrats who run the place.  All of this is presented against the backdrop of the controversy of social attitudes about the patients.  The piece is strangely cemented together with the premise of a newspaper reporter trying to get an interview with the murderer on the day his sentence expires.  Odd as the setting and premise are, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade is really just a demo-clip.  The idea was to get the concept of Billy Bob Thornton’s ability to portray Karl Childers out into the greater film community in order to locate backers and pitch a full-length movie.  It worked, and the mainstream picture Sling Blade was the result.  Most of  Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade is filler, the premise with the reporter being used to make the film longer than a screen test.  As such, the film lacks the substance and quality to be a truly weird movie.

COMMENTS:  In this short film predecessor to Sling Blade we observe a day in the life of a criminal mental patient who is on the verge of social repatriation.  Karl Childers (Thornton) chats with a fellow inmate in an institutional day-room.  Meanwhile, reporter Teresa Tatum (Ringwold) is waiting to interview Childers.

Tatum, who is working on a feature exploring the controversies of releasing criminal patients back into society, pontificates frivolously at long length with a companion (Cryer), then spars with a hesitant and quirky chief hospital administrator (Mays).  Eventually, we are allowed to see Thornton’s skillful performance as Childers when he explains to the reporter the circumstances of his crime.  The interim would be dreadfully uninteresting time filler were it not interspersed with several astounding segments in which J.T. Walsh plays the part of a funny, congenial, but very scary psychotic killer.

The annoying Molly Ringwold, an actress of very modest proportions, puts us to sleep with a Continue reading SHORT: SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE (1994)

LIST CANDIDATE: DEAD MAN (1995)

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

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avatal, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT:  Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west, becomes a wanted man after he

Still from Dead Man (1995)

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 BORDERLINEDead 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.

COMMENTSDead 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 Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: DEAD MAN (1995)