Dead Man is the story of Bill Blake (Johnny Depp), an accountant from Cleveland who has gone West to get over heartbreak and seize a business opportunity. It turns out that the West he winds up in is significantly further West than he probably had anticipated; his train started with men in suits and well-dressed women, but as the miles wore on, the train car became populated with gruff drunkards with wild hair, animal skins, and lots and lots of guns.
Gibby Haynes receiving oral sex in an alley, etc.), he heads to work. Unfortunately, it took Blake too long to make the trip; since he received the letter guaranteeing his employment in Machine, another man has been hired for the post. Blake tries to protest, but it does little good against his rough would-be employer, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum).
|You're not going to beat two barrels of Mitchum|
Without enough money to return home, Blake is at a loss. He manages to postpone making any real decisions when he befriends (in the Biblical sense) Thel (Mili Avital). In their post-coital bliss, Thel's ex-boyfriend, Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne) walks in; he shoots at Blake, the bullet goes through Thel and lodges in Blake's chest, and Blake shoots Charlie in the neck. Gravely wounded, Blake manages to grab his belongings, steals a horse, and wakes up lost in the woods with a fat Indian poking his wound with a knife.
|Not the ideal wake-up call|
|You cry lighting?|
Dead Man was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, and is the only film I have seen of his to date. I was a little surprised by that, so if you have any Jarmusch recommendations, please leave me a comment. If there is only one thing you can say about Dead Man, it is that it is definitely stylized. The entire film is in black-and-white. The passage of time is shown only through scenes fading to black, sometimes after only a few moments. It has a very atypical score for a Western; Neil Young provides a sparse soundtrack, consisting almost entirely of harsh and abrupt electric guitar riffs. This is not the Wild West from classic Hollywood Westerns, where you go West to find freedom and start anew. Jarmusch's West is surreal and nightmarish. I loved the direction in this film, and I thought the actors were all handled quite well. As for the writing...well, I'll come back to that later.
The acting in Dead Man is good, although most of the surprisingly deep supporting cast is limited to shallow bit parts. Johnny Depp is good as the perpetually out-of-his-depth Blake; what I liked best about his portrayal was just how much calmer and worldly Blake got as he approached death. Gary Farmer was also very enjoyable as Blake's companion, Nobody. The last film I watched that had a prominent Native American role in it was Windtalkers, so it was nice to see an ethnic character that wasn't a stereotype. Lance Henriksen was good as a truly nasty killer, but he was overshadowed by Michael Wincott's gravel-voiced (and often surprisingly funny) chatterbox; Eugene Byrd was fine as the third hired killer, but he definitely had the least developed character in the bunch.
|If nothing else, Westerns typically deliver mean-looking bad guys|
|Depp's paper rose is discussed in detail here. Thankfully, Pop's dress and bonnet are not|
Dead Man is a dark, trippy, surreal and surprisingly funny Western. It is sometimes referred to as an Acid Western, following the example of non-traditional Westerns from the 60s and 70s and turning the sense of dread from films like Ride in the Whirlwind into an extended nightmare. The dialogue is crisp and clever, and the fact that the various Native Americans languages were not subtitled or translated only emphasized Blake's outsider status. The first time I saw this movie, I was oblivious to William Blake, but now that I'm somewhat familiar with his work, I found Nobody's references and plan far more amusing and less random. As much as I enjoyed most of Jarmusch's writing in Dead Man, I have one major complaint. The story just seems to go on and on. Don't get me wrong --- I enjoyed the film and the two hour running time wasn't excessive. The story just didn't have much structure. Blake heads West, gets shot and then another hour and a half go by. As an exercise in style and fun writing, Dead Man is great, but it is lacking a story that makes you care. Still, good performances, enjoyable writing and interesting direction makes this better than most movies, even if it is imperfect.