Dead Man (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch's first feature since 1992's Night on Earth, is a quirky chronicle of one man's physical and spiritual search for a place of belonging. Jarmusch chose to make Dead Man a western because, according to him, the genre is "very open to metaphor, and has deep roots in classical narrative forms." Actually, any kind of road picture could have been used to tell this oddly-compelling tale.

The main character is William Blake. He's not the William Blake, of course (the English poet), although a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer) accepts him as such. Blake is an accountant from Cleveland who travels to the frontier community of Machine sometime during the latter half of the 19th century. When he arrives, he learns that his would-be employer, John Dickinson (a scenery-chewing Robert Mitchum who spends half of his scenes yelling at a stuffed bear), has filled the position. At gunpoint, Dickinson tells Blake to get out of town. But, before he can decide what to do with his life, Blake becomes involved in a shoot-out in which he kills Dickinson's son (Gabriel Byrne).

Injured and on the run, Blake is befriended by Nobody, and the two travel together. Their destination is a mystical place where Blake's spirit can cross back to where it belongs. Along the way, they encounter a number of strange characters (including lawmen named Lee and Marvin), and are hunted by a trio of hired killers (Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, and Eugene Byrd) who are as likely to off one another as their quarry.

Dead Man is an undeniably strange movie, and sometimes it's hard to figure out what to make of it. Filmed in black-and-white with an eerie score by Neil Young, and using contemporary dialogue and mannerisms, Jarmusch's picture has a dream-like quality. It's filled with irony and subtle humor, but contains a serious message about the fragility and uncertainty of human existence. Blake, normally the mildest of people, discovers how easy it is to kill. In fact, he becomes wanted for a series of murders.

Johnny Depp has always been willing to take acting chances. From Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood, Depp has consistently sought out challenges. With William Blake, he breathes life into another in his series of oddball personalities. Depp's Blake is lost and injured both physically and spiritually. Playing opposite the lead actor, Gary Farmer portrays the enigmatic Nobody with a caustic edge that makes him very unlike other Native American movie "sidekicks". The impressive list of actors with cameo appearances includes Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover, and Alfred Molina.

Even if it accomplishes little else, Dead Man will almost certainly inspire thought and discussion. This isn't the kind of movie that can be digested easily or immediately. Although I don't have all the answers, I recognize that this provocative, puzzling movie will stay with you long after the twangy strains of Neil Young's end credit music have faded away.

Dead Man (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 1996-05-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1