A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, July 3, 2017

Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)

Johnny Depp in Dead Man
William Blake: Johnny Depp
Nobody: Gary Farmer
Cole Wilson: Lance Henriksen
Conway Twill: Michael Wincott
Johnny "The Kid" Pickett: Eugene Byrd
John Scholfield: John Hurt
John Dickinson: Robert Mitchum
Salvatore "Sally" Jenko: Iggy Pop
Benmont Tench: Jared Harris
Big George Drakoulios: Billy Bob Thornton
Thel Russell: Mili Avital
Charlie Dickinson: Gabriel Byrne
Train Fireman: Crispin Glover
Trading Post Missionary: Alfred Molina

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Production design: Bob Ziembicki
Music: Neil Young

It was probably inevitable that Jim Jarmusch and Johnny Depp, two of American film's best-known off-beat artists, would collaborate, and it seems appropriate that they should do it in that quintessentially off-beat American genre, the "stoner Western."* Unfortunately, for some viewers the film just feels stoned: slow, meandering, and fixated on images that refuse to yield up their significance. It is, I think, one of those films that are more involving to think about after watching them, which is why its reputation has grown since its initial release, when Roger Ebert, among other critics, dismissed it as "unrewarding." It opens with a long montage of young accountant William Blake's westward train journey from Cleveland to the end-of-the-line factory town called Machine, a name that suggests the real manifest destiny of the United States was the spread of industrial capitalism. Blake is on his way to a job with the Dickinson Metalworks in Machine, and is unaware that he shares a name with the poet and artist who was one of the great enemies of industrial capitalism. He dozes through spectacular scenery that has filled the great Westerns -- a reminder that before there were movies there were train windows. But when he arrives in Machine, no job is waiting for him, and his protests are futile when he demands to see Mr. Dickinson, who turns out to be the always-formidable Robert Mitchum in his last screen role. Moreover, that night he kills Dickinson's son in self-defense and, wounded himself, flees town on a stolen horse. Dickinson immediately hires a trio of gunmen to kill him. Blake is found half-dead from his wound by an Indian, who patches him up but also tells him that the bullet is lodged near his heart and he will die from it eventually. The Indian is called Nobody because he belongs to no tribe, having been abducted by white men as a child and taken to England to be exhibited. He was educated there and learned to love the art and poetry of William Blake, so naturally he proclaims the hapless accountant a reincarnation of the poet. And so Blake and Nobody begin an odyssey toward the Pacific, a picaresque in which Jarmusch manages to cross an adventure story with a satiric look at the failure of American ideals, using bits of Blake's prophetic verse as a running commentary. (Remarkably, quotations from Blake turn out to sound much like the kind of native wisdom usually ascribed to American Indians in the movies.) It's to Jarmusch's credit that this high-concept blend becomes as moving as it often is, especially, as I've suggested, in retrospect.

*Jarmusch referred to Dead Man as a "psychedelic Western," but aside from the scene in which Nobody, under the influence of peyote, sees the skull beneath William Blake's skin, it doesn't have the conventional distortions and hallucinations associated with movie psychedelia.

Watched on The Movie Channel

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