Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dead Man

For many years, if you asked me who my favorite actor was, I would immediately answer "Johnny Depp."  To date, I have seen 37 of his 42 films, and I have enjoyed most of them.  With the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, though, I have felt that Depp's roles have been significantly tamer than the glorious weirdness that marked his career from 1990-1998.  Just as I was starting to question whether or not Depp was still my favorite, I noticed that Dead Man was LAMB's Movie of the Month.  That was a good enough reason for me to revisit this film for the first time in fifteen years.

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. 
Blake's stop is at the very end of the line, in a town called Machine.  After taking in the sights (a horse pissing in the street, 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
It's not as bad as you might think.  Well, maybe it is.  The Indian, Nobody (Gary Farmer) was trying to dig out the bullet (which was a pleasant surprise for Bill), but it is too close to his heart (which is bad news for Bill).  Blake is essentially living on borrowed time.  Meanwhile, John Dickinson hires a trio of murderous thugs to bring Blake back, alive or (preferably) dead and has wanted posters put up all around, offering a large cash reward.  What is an accountant to do in the wild, with every armed man in the West looking to kill him for money?  What do you do when you are a [clever use of the movie title]?
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
Robert Mitchum was pretty awesome as an elderly bad-ass in his few moments onscreen.  I also enjoyed Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, and Iggy Pop as a bizarre trio of fur-traders.
Depp's paper rose is discussed in detail here.  Thankfully, Pop's dress and bonnet are not
The rest of the noteworthy cast (including Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, and Alfred Molina) are certainly adequate, but their appearances generate more of a "is that who I think it is?" reaction than a "what a great performance!"

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.


  1. Did it help answer if Depp is still your top dog?

    I am very surprised you have not seen any other Jarmusch flicks. Avoid Coffee & Cigarettes (all twenty of them) at all costs. Broken Flowers (starring your other boy, Bill Murray) is probably your best bet. Mystery Train is also interesting. Regardless of your choice, get ready for more stories that go nowhere!

  2. You know, I've had Broken Flowers in my Netflix queue forever. Maybe this will be the nudge I need to finally watch it.

    I don't know if it convinced me if Depp is still my favorite actor, but it definitely reminded me why I've enjoyed him for so long. Before his current drought of awesomeness, there was no question in my mind about my fave. Now, I just can't think of a better alternative that I have seen in many films. Maybe I should go on a Cary Grant binge.

  3. Have you never seen Charlton Heston act?! I just assumed he was your number two, as he should be everyone's number one. Huh. I could have sworn you reviewed Planet of the Apes. I must be mistaken.

    Go on a Grant binge. I watched a documentary on him which said his best work is when he did a string of serious roles. Not sure about that, as no one has ever had better comic timing.

  4. Are you familiar with the work of Powers Boothe? If not you might want to check out Sudden Death.

  5. Always enjoyed this movie. The whole cast was at their best. Lance Henriksen definitely stood out.

  6. I like this movie a lot. It, like other Jarmusch stories, is kind of a slice of life. That doesn't bother me because I think slice of life is a great way depict a wide range of themes, if only for their own sake.

  7. @NB: Yeah, I'm definitely going to treat myself to some Cary Grant in January. As for Heston, his work in Touch of Evil proves that he is a very talented Hispanic man.

    @DOD: Van Damme finding an excuse to do the splits...on ice? Of course I'm familiar with Mr. Boothe. A Powers Boothe marathon would bring up an interesting variety of movies, though...

    @Jupiter: I'm just glad it's not a slice of my life. And "for their own sake" sounds about right as far as explaining some of the things that pop up in Dead Man, for better or worse.