A stylish revisionist anti-Western masterpiece by Jim Jarmusch that is both surreal, spiritual and poetic, backed by a stunning improvised ‘live’ score by Neil Young.
Dir. Jim Jarmusch
1995 | USA | Drama | 121 mins | 1.85:1 | English & Cree
Not rated – likely to be at least M18 for moments of strong violence, a graphic sex scene and some language
Cast: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover, Lance Henriksen, John Hurt, Robert Mitchum
Plot: On the run after murdering a man, accountant William Blake encounters a strange Native American man named Nobody who prepares him for his journey into the spiritual world.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Source: Cinethesia Productions
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
I think Jim Jarmusch’s only period film to date might just be the finest movie he has ever made. Rarely talked about in his filmography and receiving mixed reviews at the time of its release, Dead Man ought to be resurrected again as a pivotal work of his and be accorded a wider sense of appreciation.
Even amongst some of his unique takes on well-worn genres or iconography, for example, vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), loners on the road in Stranger Than Paradise (1984), or the portmanteau film in Night on Earth (1991)—of course, the less said about zombies in The Dead Don’t Die (2019) the better—Dead Man is a singular film of extraordinary poetic vision that tackles the Western genre in a stylish and revisionist way that only Jarmusch can.
He’s backed with two astonishing talents behind the camera—one literally in the great cinematographer Robby Muller (frequent collaborator of Wim Wenders) who captures the film’s crisp and sometimes surreal black-and-white visuals to perfection; and the other in the legendary Neil Young as composer, whose stunning improvised score feels like it had been performed ‘live’ over the film.
“You William Blake?”
“Yes, I am. Do you know my poetry?”
It’s a spiritual, mythmaking experience, not just in terms of its music and visuals, but the narrative as well, which centers on William Blake (Johnny Depp), who is on the run from the law and lawless hitmen, as he meets Nobody (Gary Farmer), a mysterious Native American who becomes his guide through the dangerous land.
Much of Jarmusch’s film is ‘on the road’, almost similar to the elliptical editing rhythm of Stranger Than Paradise, but the director pursues a deeper existential path as Blake comes to terms with his mortality—and his famous namesake, the English poet from the Romantic Age, whom he discovers from the unexpectedly educated Nobody.
It may be too slow for some viewers and seemingly without any kind of direction, but Dead Man is ultimately as fine as any a meditative if idiosyncratic film about what it means to live and die (and vice-versa).