Criterion Prediction #121: Dead Man, by Alexander Miller
Title: Dead Man
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Johnny Depp, John Hurt, Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover, Robert Mitchum,
Synopsis: William Blake (Depp), a nebbishy accountant, travels to the gruff town of Machine where circumstances turn him into a feared outlaw. As his criminal profile rises, he’s tailed by a trio of bounty hunters enlisted by the father of the man (Mitchum) he (inadvertently) killed at the start of his journey.
Critique: The Western is a delicious slice of American art. Every so often we’re treated to an auteur who realizes the potential in the genre and we get something special. Jarmusch’s deliberate aesthetic recognizes the west as a damp, earthy, steam-filled place of deviated progress; Machine is slightly industrialized but tribal and primitive, a place where fate is dictated by cruel ironies and law and order is a suggestion. In the spirit of revisionism, Jarmusch opens up the Western pastiche, rewires the tropes of heroism, lone gunfighters, bounty hunters, Native American companions, and the glorification of violence with his deliberate pacing, deadpan aesthetics, and wry humor. Jarmusch makes the most interesting work when he’s applying his craft to a genre; Down by Law is his brilliant reimagining of the prison break narrative, Ghost Dog, a contemporized samurai flick using mafia tropes to modernize the code of the hagakure, Only Lovers Left Alive his rejiggered vampire flick – a cleverly conceived if slightly smug answer to the slew of over-romanticized vampires in film. Being a distinctly American storyteller, Jim Jarmusch commits the best of his stylistic craftsmanship into Dead Man and what get is a visually sumptuous atmosphere of weathered texture that is as consistently funny as it is darkly violent. It’s an offbeat concoction for sure and it works because the film doesn’t lean on its quirkiness but lends itself to a relaxed, brutal, and consistently humorous reimaging of the West that manages some social commentary along the way, mainly in regards to the treatment of our nation’s indigenous inhabitants.
Dead Man is a vehicle that suits the director’s sensibilities. He’s agile with the mythic proponents of our culture and what’s more mythic than the American west? The film is cleverly contrasting in its playfully droll attitude that flirts with being a bit too coy (though I can’t help but laugh every time Gary Farmer’s Nobody utters “stupid, fucking white man”) but is committed to a nihilistic and darkly violent environment.
Jarmusch finds a winning alliance with Neil Young, who layers the film with deep, raspy, reverberating guitar riffs for a soundtrack. They’re desolate and heavy. It’s the perfect concession of modern and classic sensibilities, which is emblematic of the movie’s mission statement.
It’s nice to revisit a time when Johnny Depp was still playing interesting and original characters and his role as Robert Blake in Dead Man is one of the best from his streak through the nineties. Gary Farmer is a delight, and his presence wonderfully subverts the “Indian companion” stereotype as he becomes a major asset to the films revisionist structure. This movie arrived at a special time when you’d have a project headlined by a star like Depp, old guard performers like Robert Mitchum, the always brilliant John Hurt, Lance Henriksen, and the underutilized Crispin Glover. Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, Jared Harris and Gabriel Byrne’s are an additional bonus, despite the lack of any female character it’s a well-rounded cast putting in some superlative work.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: It sounds like the rumor boards are aflutter with Dead Man coming to The Criterion Collection and with the level of Jarmusch titles and the growing presence of Westerns, it feels like it will be an all too fitting inclusion.