[Note: this is the seventh film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]
Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist western Dead Man was actually a box office bomb at the time of release, making just over $1m against a budget of $9m, but as we all know such figures are no true bellweather for quality; today many critics consider it to be among the very best films of the 1990’s, and indeed one of the director’s finest efforts to date, if not the finest. Looking back on it with the benefit of hindsight, there’s a certain contrariness here, separate from the quirky, jokey tone, that has always been present in Jarmusch’s films, but which seems particularly striking in the midst of genre exercises like this one. I can’t think of many writer-directors, for example, who would make a polite, bespectacled accountant the hero of a western, particularly when the setting – a typical frontier outpost named Machine – is so often populated by strong, stubble-ridden silent types; i.e. gunslingers. How on earth will this fish out of water, fresh from the relative sanctuary that is Cleveland, Ohio, survive life in Machine and on the frontier?
That accountant is William Blake, played by Johnny Depp in a hat that’s not dissimilar to the one he sported in 1993’s Benny & Joon. Blake’s on the way to Machine to take up a position at a metal works owned by a man named John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in his final screen role), but when he arrives he’s told the position has been filled and that he isn’t wanted. Without a job, and therefore presumably unable to go back from whence he came, Blake cuts a disconsolate figure and doesn’t fit with the surroundings at all; it’s worth noting that as he walks to the saloon he’s the only man who jumps when a gun is fired. Later that evening Blake sleeps with Thel Russell (Mili Avital), a flower seller; Thel’s on-off partner Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) shows up to find the pair in bed, and a gunfight erupts with Blake getting injured and Charlie winding up dead. Charlie is John Dickinson’s son, so Blake is forced to go on the lam, with the old man slapping a bounty on his head for good measure. Blake meets and travels with a Native American called Nobody (Gary Farmer) who mistakenly believes that the white man is the famous poet, the pair initially unaware that they’re being followed by a small posse of bounty hunters, led by Lance Henriksen’s psychopathic cannibal Cole Wilson.
You couldn’t describe Dead Man as being a typical western – it features Iggy Pop as a cross-dressing frontiersman – but there’s certainly some conventional plotting, and indeed more typical character behaviour, once Blake goes on the run. Circumstances mean that he ends up killing several men, and he actually gets quite a taste for it, quickly earning a reputation as a cold-blooded, quick-draw killer; eventually his skill with a gun and ruthlessness ensures that the legend bears some resemblance to reality. Yet this is not a film that’s overly concerned with gunfights and the like; when violence does erupt Jarmusch deals with it quickly and avoids the kind of heroic stands we see so often within this genre. More important is the journey that Nobody and Blake take together, and the way in which their bond grows, despite the fact Nobody has a vision that Blake’s card is marked and that the accountant-turned-fugitive will die soon.
The film is shot beautifully in black and white – supposedly a choice made so that the audience could clearly see the actors against several leafy green backdrops – by the master cinematographer Robby Müller, whose relationship with Jarmusch extends back to 1996’s Down By Law (they would work together for a fifth time on Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, but not afterwards, as Müller became uncomfortable with the size of the crews that the director was starting to utilise). It has a terrific, atmospheric guitar score by Neil Young, who improvised his recording while watching a print of the film. There are some great little cameos by the likes of Crispin Glover, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris and John Hurt. And Jarmusch celebrates his love for music by casting Gibby Haynes, the lead singer of the Butthole Surfers, in a small part; the director also named several characters after musicians, so we have figures here called Big George Drakoulias, Benmont Tench (in real life Tench is Tom Petty’s keyboardist) and Lee Hazlewood.
Dead Man is a quirky western, and on its release there was an assumption from some quarters that Jarmusch didn’t have much respect for the history of the genre because of the film’s idiosyncratic nature, but that’s not actually the case at all. A large amount of the production budget was spent trying to recreate authentic period costumes and sets, while the film is also regarded as being extremely well researched with regard to Native American culture. Dead Man also features extended conversations in the Cree and Blackfoot languages, and these were not translated for non-Native American audiences; by all accounts there are quite a few in-jokes in these scenes, too. Some may feel that Jarmusch’s weird, indie style – especially with regard to the exaggerated performances he gets from his cast – jars slightly with the subject matter, but I liked the mix-up a lot, and in fact several unexpected or wilfully strange elements within the production come together well to form something very special indeed. The closing scenes, in which Blake helplessly drifts away on a canoe, recall the ending of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller in a rather oblique fashion, and this film stands with that 1970’s touchstone as an eccentric, iconoclastic work that is worth celebrating.
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, Alfred Molina, Gabriel Byrne, Mili Avital, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Wincott, Eugene Byrd.
Cinematography: Robby Müller.
Editing: Jay Rabinowitz.
Music: Neil Young.
Running Time: 118.