Dead Man (1995) / Western-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for violence, nudity, sexuality, and language
Running Time: 121 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Eugene Byrd, Mili Avital, Iggy Pop, Crispin Glover, Billy Bob Thornton, Gabrial Byrne, John Hurt, Robert Mitchum
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Reviww published February 16, 2004
Jim Jarmusch's films are a definite acquired taste, speaking volumes to a small, but very loyal following of fans, while seeming too surreally quirky to most everyone else. My personal feeling towards his movies is one of reserved admiration, enjoying the little touches that make every film he's directed an interesting and unique endeavor, while also shrugging as he sometimes tries to be too cute for his own good.
Dead Man sees Jarmusch (Ghost Dog, Night on Earth) enter the world of the Western, with a sometimes psychedelic delivery (filmed in Black & White) that evokes some of the same surreal tones as Apocalypse Now, although not nearly as profound. It's an art film that throws in a few allusions and some outlandish touches, the kind of tale that will enthrall viewers who like to connect the dots of completely random things to form a cohesive narrative that Jarmusch doesn't bother to explain on the surface, probably because he doesn't quite understand it himself.
The film starts off with Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean, Sleepy Hollow) as William Blake (no, not the poet), an accountant who is traveling by train from Cleveland to the West due to a job offer, selling all his belongings to devote his life to the company which sought to hire him. He finds that the job has already been given to someone else, and through a set of odd circumstances, he winds up accidentally killing a man, who happens to be the son of the wealthy businessman who turned Blake away. Blake is on the run from bounty hunters out to bring him in, but he's befriended by a kindly bear of a Native American named Nobody, who assists Blake in his quest to return "home", although not necessarily Cleveland. Confrontations keep occurring which puts Blake in a position where he begins to become the ruthless outlaw everyone thinks he is.
There's really only one major complaint on my part as to this otherwise enjoyably strange film, and that's the excruciatingly slow pacing during some segments. There's a lackadaisical quality that permeates almost every scene, and while it does work well most of the time, there are also those moments where one's mind can't help but drift away from the story into a land of unrelated personal thoughts. I'm not really sure Jarmusch wanted some idle time so tha members of the audience can contemplate what items to include on their grocery lists and other things one does when bored, so I'd have to conclude that the fault lies somewhere in the editing. It may not be as long as Once Upon a Time in the West, although it certainly feels like it.
I don't want to give the impression that Dead Man is a bad film, because I actually do enjoy it. There's an element of the bizarre that is often quite amusing. Whether it's Robert Mitchum (Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear) giving a monologue to a stuffed bear, or watching Henriksen (Aliens) chow down on the remains of a human hand, there definitely is an innovative mind at work in every scene, even if that mind is slightly askew. Michael Wincott (The Crow, Along Came a Spider) is particularly funny as Conway Twill, the gabby bounty hunter.
Sometimes filmmakers who try to make art end up making artifice, and Jarmusch is about as guilty as most in this. There is a peculiar aspect to the entire production that evokes the feeling like you're watching a film, and not a story, constantly aware that this version of the Old West if completely fabricated. Granted, some of this is intended, but I'm speaking more about some of the shoddy make-up and costumes, with obviously fake moustaches and sets that seem more out of a science fiction film than in a western.
For all of the faults, Dead Man manages to eke out a recommendation from me, with reservations, for a thoughtful and often humorous take on a conventional genre, employing good use of religious symbolism and thematic asides that give the perception of depth to this otherwise thin story. There's a sparse but effective score by classic rocker Neil Young, and a good supporting cast of recognizable actors in the mix to liven things up. If you love Jarmusch, or just offbeat filmmaking, it's worth a look. Be sure to bring a pad and paper for that trip to the grocery store afterward.
©2004 Vince Leo