by Frank Olson
When Dead Man arrived in the mid-90s (first at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, and then in a limited theatrical release the following year) it was received with befuddlement. In his damning one-and-a-half star pan for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert summed up the naysayers’ point of view when he wrote that writer-director Jim Jarmusch was “clearly trying to get at something…and I don’t have a clue what it is.” Viewed today, Jarmusch’s sixth feature feels poetic, visionary, and profound, a unique masterpiece that may be the very best film released in its decade.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Producer: Demetra J. MacBride
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Cinematographer: Robby Müller
Editor: Jay Rabinowitz
Music: Neil Young
Cast: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Eugene Byrd, John Hurt, Robert Mitchum, Iggy Pop, Gabriel Byrne, Jared Harris, Mili Avital
Premiere: May 26, 1995 — Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: May 10, 1996
US Distributor: Miramax Films
Jarmusch made his name with deadpan bohemian comedies like Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, and while those films’ insouciant wit is also present in Dead Man, the director had never previously attempted anything approaching the scale, scope, or weight that is immediately apparent in his psychedelic western. In a sense the film’s story is very small—the main character is shot early on and spends the rest of the movie dying—but the warped vision of the Old West is incredibly detailed and vivid. The period touches feel simultaneously thoroughly researched and surreally heightened. It’s as if the film is presenting a hallucination that allows the viewer to see the reality of the weird old America for the first time.
Our ostensible identification figure is not a strapping John Wayne type, but a meek Cleveland-born accountant named William Blake (Johnny Depp) who inadvertently becomes the only survivor of a messy shootout. The film’s actual hero is a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer), who discovers the wounded protagonist and becomes his bodyguard and traveling companion after mistakenly believing Blake to be a reincarnation of the poet of the same name. (In a typical example of the film’s peculiar sense of humor, the accountant has never even heard of his legendary namesake.) Nobody becomes Blake’s (and the viewer’s) tour guide through an otherworldly, yet frighteningly convincing, western countryside.
Dead Man is grittier and stranger than the average western (or even the average anti-western), offering a consistently disconcerting union of verite and surrealism. The sheer oddity of the unsettled American landscape–with its bands of psychotic cowboys, small-pox blanket-selling priests, professional bounty hunters, and painted-face natives–has never been thrown into greater relief than it is here. Although the film is never less than gripping, the “action” of the periodic gun fights is consistently chaotic and ugly as it would have been in reality, as opposed to the elegant quick draw work so common to the genre.
Jarmusch breaks the film into a series of carefully paced black-and-white vignettes, each capped with a slow fade to black. While this method of scene transitioning was already somewhat of a Jarmusch trademark (having been used as far back as Stranger Than Paradise), its function in Dead Man is not just to put a bemused punctuation on the end of each passage but also to contribute to the film’s funeral atmosphere. There is a meditative and reflective quality to the film’s pacing that is entirely in keeping with the protagonist’s slow march toward death. Neil Young’s haunting, lonely electric guitar score–reportedly improvised during the rock icon’s first viewing of the footage–also contributes greatly to the film’s sense of life gradually slipping away. The film’s style is so earthy that one almost has a physical sensation of Blake’s journey. As strange as the film gets–and this is a movie in which a cannibalistic bounty hunter (Lance Henriksen) sleeps with a teddy bear–it always feels equally grounded in both the main character’s story and in historical reality. It’s as if America’s tragic genocidal past is trying to force its way through the screen.
The most revelatory and unique element of Dead Man may be its treatment of Native Americans, perhaps the most misrepresented (and underrepresented) racial group in cinema. At several points the film offers un-subtitled dialogue in various Native American languages, often evidently in the form of jokes at the expense of the nerdy white protagonist. This may be the only western in history to assume that there are Native Americans in the audience. Nobody is undoubtedly the best-rounded representation of an American Indian in all of cinema, as he is neither depicted as an uncivilized savage nor condescended to as a wise noble warrior. Farmer brings a sweet naiveté to the role, and is easily the most charismatic presence in the film. (Depp’s role is a great showcase for his Buster Keaton-esque deadpan demeanor, but the film’s construction requires him to be something of a blank slate.) In an extraordinary ensemble cast that also includes Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, Jared Harris, Alfred Molina and (in his last role) Robert Mitchum, it’s Farmer who is allowed the greatest amount of personality and dignity. It’s unheard of for a western to allow a Native American to be its most vivid presence. Like everything else in the film, it feels equally askew and accurate.