Here I go finding myself already recanting statements from mere recent blog posts within the context of this all Western month. I boldly asserted that it would take a lot to beat out Rio Bravo for the top spot, and while it is still excellent and deserved of high praise, Jim Jarmusch's take on a western that is Dead Man, is nothing short of perfection. I was sold from the moment Crispin Glover delivered a mad monologue on the nature of knowledge, only to be absolutely hooked in by the very authoritative and aging presence of Robert Mitchum. Of course, Dead Man is not simply excellent for its cameos (believe me there are a ton) but also for its absolute commitment to a specific ambience and visual narrative that manages to exist both within the confines of the western genre, while also pushing far beyond what constitutes the grounds of cinema. Much like Coffee and Cigarrettes, another wonderful work by Jarmusch, Dead Man is an episodic experience, temporal and, arguably, spatial time are cut throughout by the use of fade-outs and fade-ins pushing towards a transcendent world, only held together by the presence of a singular character. Unlike, Coffee and Cigarettes, Dead Man could easily exist within a bizarre dream sequence wherein the death fueled surrealist sequences and stark black and white cinematography cause one to think that the film may well be from the ouevre of Maya Deren as opposed to the constantly hip and always distinctly cool world of Jarmusch. Dead Man exists as a sort of nightmare film one that is not as much creepy as it is incredibly oneiric, in fact, its use of chiaroscuro and shadowing make it reminiscent of the darkest of film noir works, only heightened by the thundering guitar riffs of Neil Young whose work on the soundtrack is top notch. Dead Man is so many things, whether it be an existential reflection of naming or a critique of man's quest for power through produced wealth it does so with such a considered and focused narrative that I am quite certain it is my new favorite Jarmusch work, not to mention a great contender for a top twenty five film if I ever get around to reworking that list.
Dead Man centers on the travels of William Blake (Johnny Depp) a distanced and introverted young accountant who has been assigned a job in Machine, a town aptly named as it is on the cutting edge of industrialization in the west. Upon arrival to his job, however, he is informed by the supervisor that he is far too late for the job and will have to seek work elsewhere. In a moment of frustration he approaches the president of the company John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum) who indifferently dismisses Blake, instead; embracing his personal wealth as well as a rather fond admiration for his stuffed bear. Defeated, Blake heads to the local saloon only to feel alienated by the rough and rumble nature of the place, stepping outside and helping a young woman who has been degraded by a patron mistaking her for a prostitute. The incredibly grateful woman, who turns out to be an ex-prostitute lays down with William, much to the chagrin of her lover Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne) who arrives to their room post-intercourse. Enraged Charlie attempts to shoot Blake, killing his lover instead and in a quick reflex Blake shoots Charlie. This action results in his needing to flee, although he has been injured in the shootout, eventually passing out once he makes it to the woods. Unfortunately for Blake, the Charlie he killed is directly related to John who uses his wealth and power to send a group of expert gunslingers after Blake. Blake awakes to a hefty Native American man cleaning his wound and spouting about the absurdities of the white man, the man Nobody (Gary Farmer) upon Blake's name, assumes him to be the famous poet, treating him with a spiritual reverence, assuming him to be a spectral representation of the writer. Needless to say, Nobody and Blake form a duo on the run from Blake's captors, who become more in the numbers as Blake grows in infamy, mostly a result of accidental killings and as a result of a considerable amount of help on the part of Nobody. Eventually, however, the constant attacks grow to high and Blake is fatally wounded, leading to Nobody taking him to a Makah village for a final set of healing practices, which seem to double as funeral rites, considering that Nobody then sends Blake out to sea, only to result in Blake watching Nobody be gunned down by a pursuing gunslinger, left spiritually alone to float out to sea and perhaps into nothingness.
This movie is deeply ponderous and perfectly planned right from the opening moments. Much like an early Buñuel film, Dead Man places clever, as well as obvious, hints and foreshadowings to Blake's evident death, whether it be coffins and animal skulls in the background, or a transfiguring of Blake's face into that of a skull during Nobody's peyote fueled vision quest. While Jarmusch takes this existential preoccupation with death and identity to surrealist proportions, it is not a theme entirely unrelated to westerns as a whole. Often, westerns by their very nature propose this question of one's meaning in the face of certain death, however, it is usually established within the opening shots, with a ton of deaths or a clever escape by the protagonist from a hanging or bar beat down. This is not the case with Dead Man, viewers are asked by Jarmusch to move through a incredibly intertwined temporal and spatial narrative that implodes with death, each character becoming more attached to the viewer only to be killed off by the bullet of a gun at the last possible moment. Jarmusch clearly wants those watching to value the death of each individual, even the despicable characters, because, after all, it is a piece of humanity being lost to what the narrative seems to imply is nothingness. Often the camera lingers on a dying body, a particularly great example is one of Johnny "The Kid" Pickett (Eugene Byrd) as his young body floats in a puddle, blood slowly seeping into the murky water, made all the more poetic by the black and white cinematography. Of course, the viewer is not to necessarily place their own identity in relation to these images, but instead; view them vicariously through the bewildered and growingly alienated Blake who seems to simply float through the world as an almost spectral presence, always nearly avoiding death and transcending physical harm, however, even Blake the apparent spirit of the film is capable of destruction. Yet while Blake can be harmed, it is clever that the film closes on him floating away and not dying, making the deeply disconcerting nature of death seem frivolous in the spiritually calming nature of the closing shots, perhaps a gentle pat on the back from Jarmusch saying that worrying about death is futile, because when it comes it will simply happen and pondering over it would only result in misery and desolation.
Key Scene: While this film is incredibly perplexing and serene, there are the classic moments of Jarmusch humor throughout, one such being Billy Bob Thorton's character spouting the world "philistine" as well as bemoaning being shot, which provided an excellent reprieve from the intellectually hefty nature of the film. Also Iggy Pop in a dress certainly helped the scene.
This is a criminally under viewed film in that everyone should watch this, I cannot recommend it enough and demand that you seek out the bluray immediately.