19 November 1995

Dead Man (1995)

Turning his back on his favoured scenarios of studied inner city querkiness, former cult hero Jim Jarmusch has made a western. Thank god. Another arcane excercise in by-the-numbers chic like his 1991 flop Night On Earth, and it would be curtains in tinseltown, of the “you’ll never bore audiences again” variety.

Set late last century in the amoral, anarchic American frontier, Dead Man is actually a cross-genre concoction - a western road movie. Acting dynamo Johnny Depp (what can’t this man do?) stars as William Blake - the accountant, not the poet. Straightlaced Blake travels to the frayed edge of the frontier, to a misbegotten hole called Machine, where he expects to take up employment at the local steel works. But fate is unkind, and soon Blake finds himself shot, on the run, wanted for murder and at the mercy ‘Nobody’, (Gary Farmer) a wise and enigmatic Native American who, assuming Blake to be the poet and not the accountant, is only too pleased to become his fellow traveller to... who knows where.

The film then settles into a journey into darkest night as Nobody guides the wounded, dying Blake through a ravaged landscape full of decaying reminders of white man’s savagry, to his final resting place in ‘the spirit world’. On the way, Blake becomes a kind of accidental avenging angel, casually wreaking vengeance on any ‘stupid white man’ who crosses their path. Adding interest to the narrative, these two archetypical christian pilgrims are pursued by ‘three wise gunmen’, led with distinction by a suitably consumptive Lance Henricksen (The Terminator, Hard Target).

While again bearing his trademark flaws of a painfully slow narrative, a camera that uncomfortably lingers, and a steadfast refusal to yell ‘cut!’, Jarmusch turns these negatives to his advantage in Dead Man. The film induces a strange, intoxicating semi-conciousness as it meanders and saunters its way home. Yet Jarmusch also puts the viewer on guard by punctuating the sparseness and silence with moments of extreme, graphic violence.

Death indeed stalks each frame, helped immeasurably by Robby Müller’s stark, brooding black and white cinematography and Neil Young’s other worldly splashes of inspired guitar licks, dropped in like emotional bombs from hell to augment the drama.

Farmer, who is Native American, is a revelation as Nobody, bringing a quiet dignity and defiant indignation to the ‘faithful injun’ role. Depp carries the film almost on sheer charisma and is perfectly cast as the ‘poet of atrocity’ wreaking vengeance on the guilty before ascending to a better world. Amusing cameos from the likes of Crispin Glover, Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Alfred Molina, Gabriel Byrne and Iggy Pop are but small treats to savour on the way.

As a spiritual meditation, Dean Man is confused and a little flaky - the nihilism and sense of loss really lead nowhere beyond the end credits. As a political indictment of colonialism, it is more convincing, and eminently worthy. As film art it is effective, often funny and ultimately quite moving.

As entertainment, it’s thirty minutes too long.

Michael Hutak


First published in Beat magazine.