Dead Man

Jim Jarmusch

9/10 (unrelenting pessimism)

This is a film that benefits highly from a repeat viewing or two. Considered by many to be the ultimate post-modern western (or by at least one critic an “acid western”) this movie, by “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai” director Jarmusch, features stunning photography, a haunting score by Neil Young, and perhaps Johnny Depp’s best performance ever.

Depp plays the fortunately named William Blake, not the poet but a mere shlub accountant from Cleveland. He has been called out to the industrial outpost of Machine (which I’m guessing by the scenery is supposed to be somewhere in southern California or Nevada, although it’s never specified) by a job offer after the death of his parents. Upon arriving, he learns that the firm has no intention of hiring him, and he’s chased out of the office at gunpoint by the insane owner. Later that night he gets embroiled in a love triangle double murder and has to escape while mortally wounded. The rest of the film is occupied with the manhunt and Blake’s unlikely acquaintance with a mysterious Native American named “Nobody.”

To be perfectly frank, the film is slow and not much seems to happen besides Depp and his Indian pal (an infectiously cheerful Gary Farmer) wandering through the dreamy desert and forest of the undeveloped West. But with the black-and-white cinematography, Jarmusch’s eye for perfectly framing his shots, the sparse, enigmatic dialogue and the director’s use of frequent black fadeouts to end his short scenes, the film becomes a hypnotic masterpiece. Also, each scene is filled with such precise detail that one could watch the movie several times and still glean new information.

A good example is from the opening sequence, which is just Johnny Depp sitting on a train for about 5 minutes. It sounds boring, until you start paying attention to what he’s looking at, both out the window and in the train. As the landscape changes from prairies to mountains, the train’s passengers change from well-dressed businessmen to “Little House on the Prairie” families to rugged trappers and hunters. Gradually Depp gets more uncomfortable as he realizes how out of place he is getting, and the viewer understands that his character is woefully underprepared for what awaits him. Here Jarmusch is telling a story without saying anything, and he does it masterfully.

This continues throughout the film. Even if you get bored by the superficial content, the symbolic level of interpretation can keep the philosophical viewer entertained, and the stunning visuals can easily keep other patient viewers enchanted. Neil Young’s score is perfect, with the guitarist offering a sparse, haunting version of Morricone’s compositions (“The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” and other spaghetti westerns).

As the movie winds inexorably onward, you come to the understanding that we are accompaning William Blake on his dream-like journey from the land of the living to the land of the dead, with Nobody as his spiritual guide. On the way, Jarmusch doesn’t hesitate to condemn visually and otherwise the “stupid fucking white man’s” world, a civilization that has brought nothing but pain and destruction to a once-peaceful way of life. Indeed one can watch this movie on an entirely socio-political level and come away satiated, as Jarmusch’s treatment of the Native Americans and their culture shows a warm sympathy — and even a subtle reverence — throughout.

Simultaneously, everything having to do with the colonizers is filthy, savage and bloodthirsty (even cannibalistic in one memorable scene). There are no happy painted “Old West” towns like the ones depicted in “High Noon.” Everything here is slipshod, sinister, and covered in mud and horse shit.

My only complaint about the movie is related to this condemnation of modern civilization. Apart from the graphic violence in many of the scenes, the tone of the film is almost overwhelmingly nihilistic. (White) Men take lives as quickly and easily as a shot of whiskey. I’m unqualified to say whether or not people actually behaved like that once upon a time, or it’s just a product of Jarmusch’s ironic detachment. But I do know that it’s unsettling and even grating by the end of the film, though by no means a dealbreaker.

In conclusion, if you have patience, like Johnny Depp a lot, are a fan of westerns, love good cinematography, or are one of my fellow fans of “Ghost Dog,” you should see this movie. Just one of the above will do. And even if you don’t like the film, I bet you won’t be able to keep it from haunting you for a long time after.

21 May 2010

Other Reviews of “Dead Man”


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