What I remember:
Whether you like him or not, Jarmusch is one of the few true auteurs out there. I guess you could call the entire Pixar group an auteur, but after Jarmusch, is there any one person who’s body of work is so singular, so completely separate from the bulk of what else is being done, and yet so uniform to itself? Yes, there’s Almódovar, no argument here. Other names that come to mind are Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Tim Burton, Noah Baumbach, Ramin Bahrani, Tom McCarthy, Suzanne Biers. The first four each have a body of work that has similarities throughout, but there are also variances that keep me from proclaiming them auteurs. Woody’s serious side usually is imitative of other great directors; “Interiors” is his Bergman, “Stardust Memories” his Fellini, “Match Point” his Hitchcock. Tarantino, Anderson, the Coens and Burton each have enough of their own sideways trajectories to make them questionable for this nomenclature. As for the other four younger directors I mentioned, their oeuvre is still in formation. We shall see if they continue their very individual work.
Digression over. Jarmusch has such a strong hold on every film he makes that genre has no effect. You want a hitman flick? “Ghost Dog”. How about an episodic travelogue? “Night on Earth”. Relationship movie? “Broken Flowers”. All of these films have the trademark leisurely paced, quirky dialogue, stranger in a strange land narrative that has defined a Jarmusch film.
His western, “Dead Man” is no exception. I consider it his finest movie. I saw it over a year after it’s release and was very impressed. It had some of that great humor we associate with Jarmusch, but the title alone shows just how dark and intense the film is. The fact that it is shot in black and white adds to the general gloominess of the proceedings. Johnny Depp was fine in his role as William Blake, but he does come across a bit like Edward Scissorhands in bearskins. The real star of the film, besides Robby Müller’s cinematography, was Gary Farmer as the Indian, “Nobody”. Farmer is indeed a Native American (yes I know he’s Canadian- that is part of America), and his performance here is nothing short of astonishing.
“Dead Man” is all about atmosphere, hopelessness, disorientation, isolation. Other than that it’s a fun, light-hearted romp!
William Blake- (holding up a gun) “Why do you have this?”
Thel Russell- “Because this is America.”
Nobody- “ I was then taken east, in a cage. I was taken to Toronto. Then Philadelphia. And then to New York. And each time I arrived at another city, somehow the white men had moved all their people there ahead of me. Each new city contained the same white people as the last, and I could not understand how a whole city of people could be moved so quickly.”
Accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) is traveling to the far west to take a job with Dickinson Metalworks in a town called Machine. When he arrives, he finds the position is already filled. Broke and alone, he drinks outside a bar, and assists a flower-selling woman named Thel Russell (Mili Avitel) who has been accosted. The two sleep together, and are surprised by Thel’s ex-lover Charlie in the morning. The man shoots Thel, then William, wounded by the bullet that has passed through Thel, shoots Charlie. He takes Charlie’s horse and escapes into the forest. In the forest he meets Nobody (Gary Farmer) who is a lone Indian. Nobody mistakes Blake for the poet of the same name, and befriends him. Meanwhile, bounty hunters and U.S. Marshalls are hired by Dickinson himself, who, it turns out, is Charlie’s father. While on the run, Blake becomes a legend like Billy the Kid, with Wanted Posters all over the area.
If the plot summary I just wrote gives you the impression that this is an action-packed oater, then I am sorry to say that you are mistaken. In fact, the pace of all the violent scenes in the film is 16 RPM. People even react to being shot with a 1,2,3 OUCH! Many times, characters that are drawn upon fumble with their weapon or don’t even move, simply awaiting their fate. Unlike the violence in “The Wild Bunch” or “Taxi Driver”, shown in slow motion to exaggerate the blood and guts, there is no gushing geyser of blood, usually just a minute bullet-hole appears, and seconds later a hand goes to the site of the wound. Languid pacing is what a Jarmusch film is about, and there are other hallmarks of his work in “Dead Man”. One I forgot to mention earlier is the juxtaposition of the strong, silent type with the guy who just won’t shut the fuck up. John Lurie and Roberto Benigni in “Down By Law” supply the archetypes, as do Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinque Lee in “Mystery Train”. In “Dead Man”, these roles are supplied by characters Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen) and Conway Twill (Michael Wincott).
Much of the dialogue is mystical, especially when uttered by Nobody or the train fireman (Crispin Glover). The theme becomes about the transition from life to death, how the white man sees it and how the Indian sees it. In Jarmusch’s vision, the Old West is a place where life is cheap, death comes easy, early and often. It is not so much a land of opportunity, but a place where hope runs out. In this place, the rule of law is a rumor, a man is very close to his feral roots, the veneer of civilization is threadbare, like everyone’s clothing.
Makes for a lovely weekend trip.
I think Jarmusch has always been drawn to society’s marginal folk, the Jersey losers in “Stranger Than Paradise”, the Finnish alcoholics in “Night on Earth”, the hit man in “Ghost Dog”. It is that theme and also the “Stranger in a Strange Land” dichotomy that he continues to explore and expound upon in all of his movies. “Dead Man” is the film I would use to introduce a person to Jarmusch’s catalogue, simply because it is the best and most poignant. And, oh yeah, there are some VERY funny moments along the way. If you have been reading this blog, you know that humor is a necessity for me to enjoy a film. Depp plays the Barney Miller-like straight man, while the humor comes from various sources; Nobody, the Bounty Hunters, even Dickinson. Comic relief mitigates this otherwise dismally dark piece, and the two work beautifully together to make a very strong statement.
I guess 16 years is not so long a time that I couldn’t remember the best things about this movie. I was right that Robby Müller’s camera work is amongst the best you will ever see, and certainly the best in a film by Jim Jarmusch. There is a look to contemporary black and white films that transcends the old silver screen concept. The Coen’s “The Man Who Wasn’t There” has a luminous quality that only a few other films can muster. This one is in that group. I also remember seeing some restored prints from the classic years, especially “The Big Sleep” which are very special to watch in monochrome. So maybe it’s the condition of the old prints that have made them lose that lustrous quality. “Dead Man” has luster in spades. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a beautiful film. The imagery is quite bleak and often disturbing. The first time you see the town of Machine, you are introduced to the Coffin maker, and the skulls of dead animals are hung everywhere. The Indian fort near the end of the film is shot like a Nazi ghetto. There are times when you feel like you could smell the stench of where you are; the maneur, the burning animal flesh, the rotting corpses.
The opening sequence is truly memorable. As the tedious train-ride to the west progresses, both the landscape and the other passengers go from civilized and familiar to savage and strange. William Blake, in his ridiculously dapper get-up, notices this change between naps, making the movement towards the primitive starkly envisioned. Right before the credits, Glover’s soot-covered fireman (the coal shoveler) sits across from Blake, and talks of visions. At one point, when he finds out where Blake is headed, he responds with “The end of the line. Why would someone want to go to hell?” It’s a premonition for the entire film before the title rolls.
A quick note about the score: Neil Young plays both acoustic and distorted electric guitar throughout the film. Thank the Lord he doesn’t sing! At times it sounds like they rolled the film with a mic on his amp, and he just picked up his axe whenever it seemed like a good time to add some tension. At first I loved it, but as the film goes on it becomes repetitive, annoying and distracting.
This is quite an ensemble that Jim put together. Iggy Pop is not only clothed, he is dressed as a woman in one very creepy segment, where he is reading Goldilocks to two other men, played by Billy Bob Thornton and Jared Harris. Other notables are Robert Mitchum as Dickinson, and Gabriel Byrne as Charlie. Everyone is perfect in their parts, but as I said earlier, the transcendent performance is from Gary Farmer as Nobody. It is a star-making turn, and I cannot figure out why he didn’t get a boatload of great parts after this. He did reprise this role in “Ghost Dog”, wherein he gets to say the signature line of Nobody- “Stupid fucking white man”. I also love a moment when he grabs Blake’s hat, puts it on and rapidly moves his lower jaw like he is a corporate bigwig talking to an underling. This is physically and verbally one of the most singular and indelible performances you will ever see.
As for Depp, he underplays the role so much, that it is hard to recognize the Johnny Depp we have all grown to know so well. No Jack Sparrow or Ed Wood here. His William Blake is simple, not very clever and truly without artifice. It’s just what the film needed out of him.
ON SECOND LOOK
“Dead Man” was my favorite film by Jim Jarmusch, and re-watching hasn’t changed that. “Dead Man” is Jarmusch’s “Annie Hall”, or “Strangers on a Train”, or “Fargo”. It’s the one movie in an auteur’s career where he gets it all right.
1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★★1/2