“Are you William Blake?”
“Yes I am. Do you know my poetry?”
Putting aside his recent troubles, it’s getting harder and harder to remember a time when Johnny Depp was a serious actor, rather than self-indulgent performances of the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise or any appearance in a Tim Burton film. There was a period in the 90s though, where Depp did some of his most interesting work, in films like Ed Wood, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and the western / road movie Dead Man.
Depp’s only collaboration with the brilliant Jim Jarmusch, Dead Man is one of the most striking modern westerns ever made, a stylised, fatalistic fable following the timid Bill Blake (Depp) as he arrives in the town of Machine to start a new life, only to be implicated in a murder and pursued across country by various bounty hunters and law enforcers, while suffering from a mortal bullet wound. Accompanying him is Nobody (Gary Farmer) a Native American who believes that Blake is the reincarnation of the poet William Blake, and decides to help him on his journey to the afterlife.
Dead Man is Jarmusch’s first foray into overt genre territory, and he nails it, demonstrating that he is capable of making a more accessible film while still retaining his offbeat style, with deadpan line delivery and trippy aesthetics. It’s a quixotic film, punctuated with bursts of extreme violence and evocative symbolism. There is also a black sense of humour running through the film, especially evident in the character names, and they way everyone is constantly asking each other for tobacco.
Jarmusch seems interested in contrasts, of using opposing ideas to compliment one another. He peppers the film with references to William Blake‘s poetry, and couples these with Native American proverbs, and combines Blake’s “civilized” accountant look with a bandit’s woolen coat and facepaint, giving him a distinctly strange look. Similarly the modern electric guitar soundtrack somehow feels entirely appropriate for Blake’s journey. Neil Young‘s hypnotic, foreboding score gives the film the momentum of a train, constantly moving, and as the characters move further from civilization, the melody slowly fades, giving the impression of a slowing pulse, or a death rattle.
The film is beautifully shot in black and white by cinematography genius Robbie Muller (see also his work on Paris, Texas, Repo Man and The American Friend) and this 4K restoration brings out the inky black tones perfectly, lending the environment a dreamlike, otherworldly quality, which somehow makes the grisly moments even more disturbing.
Depp is quietly brilliant as the bemused hero, beginning the film as a mild-mannered accountant before coming to embrace his role as an outlaw. He is a little overshadowed by Gary Farmer though, who is simply incredible as Nobody. He emerges as the most likeable character in the film, and it’s a particularly nuanced depiction of a Native American character for the genre – cast out by his tribe and white society alike, he really doesn’t belong anywhere. Jarmusch leaves the numerous dialogue in Cree and Blackfoot unsubtitled, with several in-jokes for Native American viewers. It serves as a wry deconstruction of the imperialist nature of the classic westerns of John Ford, and Jarmusch accomplishes this with more sensitivity than most serious revisionist westerns.
In an insanely eclectic supporting cast (which includes John Hurt, Jared Harris, Iggy Pop, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton, Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover and Robert Mitchum in one of his final film roles), Michael Wincott stands out as the terminally talkative bounty hunter Conway Twill, whose incessant chatting infuriates his riding companions, specifically the sinister Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen).
Dead Man marks a key shift in Jarmusch’s style – subsequently he would move from smaller projects into films that were alternately more conventional and more thought provoking, with more depth and pathos than he had attempted before. Dead Man remains his most well-rounded film; an often poetic and frequently grisly western with a unique score and stunning cinematography, and it might be the one Jarmusch film that appeals to both fans of independent film and genre cinema alike. An idiosyncratic classic of modern cinema.
Aside from the absolutely beautiful 4K print (supervised and approved by Jim Jarmusch himself) the extras include the usual mix of deleted scenes, stills, and interviews, and partial commentary from production designer Robert Ziembicki and sound mixer Drew Kunin. Also a selection of William Blake’s poems, read by cast members Mili Avital, Alfred Molina and Iggy Pop, and a nice feature where Jarmusch thoughtfully responds to fans questions on the film.
Dead Man is released today from the Criterion Collection, order here: https:/amzn.co/B09WW1WCLC