Dead Man

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Johnny Depp (William Blake), Gary Farmer (Nobody), Crispin Glover (Train Fireman), Lance Henriksen (Cole Wilson), Michael Wincott (Conway Twill), Eugene Byrd (Johnny “The Kid” Pickett), John Hurt (John Scholfield), Robert Mitchum (John Dickinson), Iggy Pop (Salvatore “Sally” Jenko), Gabriel Byrne (Charlie Dickinson), Jared Harris (Benmont Tench), Mili Avital (Thel Russell)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1995
Country: U.S. / Germany / Japan
Dead Man Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Dead Man

Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch’s fifth feature, was also the idiosyncratic indie auteur’s first genre film—or, should I say, first anti-genre film—and, to date, his only film set in the past. A classical Western in terms of its iconographic elements, Dead Man exists primarily to undercut the values, ideals, and expectations of that most cherished of classical American genres, reveling in the filth, blood, grime, and desolation of the conquered West before setting out on an existential, perhaps metaphysical, journey to the verdant Pacific Northwest. If that doesn’t sound like much fun, it isn’t, at least in a literal sense, although it’s hard not to admire Jarmusch’s sense of generic transgression while still keeping true to his own poetic sensibilities.

The story opens with the titular character dead man, a mild-manner accountant named William Blake (Johnny Depp), who spends the film’s lengthy (some might say interminable) opening minutes riding on a train from Cleveland, Ohio, to Machine, a small, dingy frontier town somewhere in the desert Southwest. Having recently lost his parents and sold all his possessions, he is a young man going West to claim an accounting job at Dickinson Metalworks, a smoke-churning, iron-clanging outpost of ruthless capitalism that appears to be the sole reason for the town’s sordid existence. One might suspect that the lengthy opening sequence on the train was designed primarily to alert viewers to what is to come, just in case anyone wandered in expecting a traditional Western, rather than Jarmusch’s black-and-white existential noodling in that genre’s fabled terrain scored entirely by the raucous power chords of Neil Young’s electric guitar. Jarmusch has a way with time and taking his time, and he loves nothing more than eccentric, oddball, unsettling, or otherwise intriguing characters doing their own thing, which is why a significant portion of the opening sequence involves Blake talking with the train’s soot-covered fireman (Crispin Glover). Certain important narrative information is dispensed in their dialogue, sure, but I also suspect that Jarmusch just liked the wonderfully odd visual and tonal conflict between Depp’s button-down, bespectacled reserve and Glover’s blackface weirdness.

When Blake arrives in Machine, he discovers that his job has already been given to someone else, which leaves him literally stranded in the desert. A chance encounter with a woman named Thel (Mili Avital) and later her violent paramour Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) result in Blake getting a bullet in his chest and his face plastered on a wanted poster for murder. His would-be employer, the vicious, cigar-chomping tycoon John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, in his last screen appearance), becomes his hunter, hiring a gang of mercenaries led by Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen) to track him down and bring him back dead or alive. Blake finds an unlike ally in Nobody (Gary Farmer), a portly Native American who has been outcast because his mother and father were from different tribes (Blackfoot and Crow) and now wanders the countryside with no particular aim. While Nobody at first dismisses Blake as yet another “stupid fucking white man,” he changes his tune when he learns his name and becomes convinced that he is the reincarnation of the mystical poet and painter William Blake, which Nobody, of course, can quote by heart (the film is a literary geek’s cornucopia of allusions to Blake’s art, from imagery, to character names, to lines of dialogue).

That is pretty much the plot, and while much of it is quite conventional by Jarmusch’s standards, it nevertheless maintains his typical anti-narrative approach that privileges character over story and, in this case, mysticism over reality. With the bullet in his chest, Blake is essentially a dead man (or, perhaps, already a dead man) moving slowly toward his imminent demise, but not before he comes across all manner of oddball characters lurking in the margins of the Old West, including a band of outlaws led by a cross-dresser named Salvatore “Sally” Jenko (Iggy Pop). Depp, who was at the height of his eccentric indie character-actor stardom, having recently appeared in Benny & Joon (1993), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993), Ed Wood (1994), and Don Juan DeMarco (1995), makes for a compelling central character who undergoes a rather astonishing transformation from bumbling, introverted victim, to unfairly accused killer, to actual killer, to transcendent subject. His interactions with Farmer’s Nobody, a character that is designed to undermine all the stereotypes and clichés associated with Indians in the Western, are both humorous and increasingly touching, even if their conversations often verge into the abstract or the absurd.

Working again with German cinematographer Robby Müller, who previous shot Down by Law (1986) and Mystery Train (1989), Jarmusch turns the film’s various landscapes into an evocative dreamworld that feels like an Ansel Adams photo in motion. The high-contrast black-and-white cinematography has the effect of rendering the familiar—forest, mountains, rivers—downright otherworldly, which underscores the film’s spiritual dimension and deep distrust of the destructive nature of humankind. Unlike Jarmusch’s previous films, Dead Man is violent—graphically, at times shockingly so—which stands in stark contrast to the moody beauty of the world in which the blood is shed. It’s not always a particularly pleasant experience, but Dead Man is a singular piece of generic transgression, making the unmaking of the West—something that filmmakers had been doing to various degrees for decades—feel shockingly, aggressively, and poetically new.

Dead Man Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioDTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Selected-scene audio commentary by production designer Bob Ziembicki and sound mixer Drew Kunin
  • Q&A in which writer/director Jim Jarmusch responds to questions sent in by fans
  • Footage of Neil Young composing and performing the film’s score
  • Video interview with actor Gary Farmer
  • New readings of William Blake poems by members of the cast, including Mili Avital, Alfred Molina, and Iggy Pop
  • Deleted scenes
  • Jarmusch’s location scouting photos
  • Essays by film critic Amy Taubin and music journalist Ben Ratliff
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateApril 24, 2018

    COMMENTS
    Criterion’s Blu-ray of Dead Man features a new 4K digital restoration, supervised and approved by director Jim Jarmusch, that was taken from the original 35mm camera negative. The result is astonishingly gorgeous, giving Robby Müller’s instantly memorable high-contrast cinematography its full due with almost perfect whites and inky blacks. Detail is impressive throughout, which helps us appreciate both the grungy grime of Machine and the lush beauty of the northern California redwood forest. I don’t think you could ask for the film to look any better The original stereo soundtrack has been mastered from the 35mm magnetic tracks and is presented in a clean, rich DTS-HD Master Audio mix. Neil Young’s jangling guitar chords feel deep and immersive, although it is the quieter scenes filled with various environmental sonic details that really stand out. The supplements are diverse and plentiful, starting with a 47-minute audio Q&A in which Jarmusch responds to questions sent in by fans (something he has done on several of his previous Criterion editions, as well). There are also 25 minutes of rarely seen footage of Neil Young composing and performing the film’s score, a new video interview with actor Gary Farmer (27 min.), and readings of William Blake poems by members of the cast, including Mili Avital, Alfred Molina, and Iggy Pop (8 min.). Production designer Bob Ziembicki and sound mixer Drew Kunin contribute a selected scene audio commentary that is obviously heavy on the details of the production, but also includes some great anecdotes and ruminations about the film’s various meanings. There are 15 minutes of deleted scenes, all of which are in pretty poor condition; a gallery of Jarmusch’s location scouting photos; and the original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



    James Kendrick

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