During the early 90s the Western, long considered a dead genre, underwent something of a revival. This was largely thanks to Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), which both won the Best Picture Oscar for their year, making them only the second and third Westerns ever to have this honour bestowed upon them (the first was 1931’s Cimarron). Both films remain popular but my favourite revisionist Western of this period is a lesser known cult item by one of my favourite director’s, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.
Jarmusch made his name in the 80s as one of the most important figures in the development of the American indie cinema movement. His films are known for their narrative minimalism, featuring small groups of alienated characters, often foreigners or those who shared a similar sense of personal and cultural isolation. The focus tends to be on small, telling moments, the gaps between dialogue as telling (often more so) than the words themselves. This unhurried, contemplative approach is frequently offset by quietly absurdist humour, Jarmusch being one of the most subtley hilarious filmmakers of recent times. He quickly acquired a reputation as being the king of indie cool.
The prospect of a Jim Jarmusch Western initially seemed like an odd one. His work prior to Dead Man tended to be largely set in claustrophobic, confined spaces; hotel rooms in Mystery Train (1989), a jail cell in Down by Law (1986), various taxis in Night on Earth (1991). Yet Dead Man is suprisingly expansive, following inadvertant outlaw William Blake (Johnny Depp) as he roams the old west with his newly acquired Native American companion Nobody (Gary Farmer). In terms of pacing, outsider characters and unsettling, hilarious weirdness however, Dead Man quite clearly dislays the fingerprints of its director.
What most viewers unfamiliar with Jarmusch’s style will notice first about Dead Man is how very slowly the story moves forwards. This is not a film for the impatient! From his opening scene of an on-edge Depp riding a train west, Jarmusch focuses heavily on mood with a liberal sprinkling of symbolism. You’ll likely know whether or not Dead Man is for you by the end of this sequence. The opening train section of the film tells us much about what to expect. Depp, as brilliant as he’s ever been, performs these early scenes in almost total silence but his carefully judged facial expressions tell us all we need to know. Also immediately apparent is Dead Man‘s stunning cinematography courtesy of Robby Muller. Shot in the crispest black and white, the opening scene cuts between the inhabitants of the train carriage and startlingly beautiful close ups of the train’s workings, frantically propelling William Blake towards his destiny. It’s just the first example of how much Muller’s work adds to the film. Also excellent is Neil Young’s repetitive, desolate score which sharply punctuates the action throughout.
Two more consistent features of Dead Man can be witnessed right off the bat. One of them is Jarmusch’s structuring of his many scenes around a series of blackouts. These blackouts happen so frequently that they can, at times, become irritating when the scene’s between them last less than a few seconds. However, ultimately they are an effective way of illustrating the passage of time and help Jarmusch cut between Blake’s journey and that of his pursuers, a gang of vicious bounty hunters. The other feature we encounter first in the train scenes is Jarmusch’s casting of big names in small but extraordinarily memorable cameos. The first of these is a funny but somewhat disturbing encounter with a coal-covered boilerman played by Crispin Glover. Glover’s cryptic dialogue is just the first example of words that resonate throughout the film.
Other famous faces that appear throughout Dead Man include John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Gabriel Byrne, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina, Iggy Pop and (in something of a coup) Robert Mitchum, in his final screen role. All of these familiar faces have about five minutes of screentime at the most (Buscemi appears for only a few seconds, heavily disguised and uncredited) but all of them make an impact. Particularly effective are John Hurt as the cocky business manager of the firm that promised Blake a job and reneges on the deal, and Gabriel Bryne as the cuckolded lover whom Blake shoots. This latter event sets the plot in motion as Blake flees, only to later discover that his victim was the son of his would-be boss, a very important and ruthlessly violent man who hires a trio of crooks to track him down.
Despite now having the basics of a conventional plot, Jarmusch remains focused on smaller moments and Dead Man never threatens to become a chase film. Instead, we are offered a chance to drink in the awesomely shot, godforsaken landscapes, and ponder the dreamlike dialogues between Blake and Nobody, who mistakenly believes that Blake is actually a reincarnation of William Blake the poet, prompting him to recite many Blake passages. Dead Man is filled with allusions to Blake’s work; it’s not necessary to recognise this to enjoy the film but it enriches what is already an extremely rich experience.
Though it features many memorable performances, Dead Man is dominated by the performances of Depp and Farmer. Farmer is exceptionally dignified but also very funny as Nobody, spouting Native American wisdom one moment and undercutting it with his catchphrase “Stupid fucking white man” the next. But it is Depp who gives the most incredible performance. As Blake, Depp portrays a constant sense of bewilderment but marries it to the most subtle of emotional progressions, running the gamut from fear through disillusionment, frsutration and an odd kind of acceptance but without ever making it overt. It’s the sort of carefully understated, realistic portrayal that so often gets overlooked in favour of showier performances and, indeed, Depp achieved exactly zero nominations of any kind for his work. Still, it remains a performance worth cherishing for the emotionally attentive viewer.
Dead Man received several hostile reviews upon its release and was heckled at the Cannes Film Festival but ultimately it has gained a cult following and is slowly being afforded the respect and praise it deserves. Slower, more cryptic, grislier and stranger than anything else in Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic catalogue, Dead Man certainly isn’t the ideal starting point for those wanting to check out the director’s work (try Mystery Train, Night on Earth or Broken Flowers for more accessible introductions) but for anyone who finds themselves drawn to this kind of material, it’s an experience you must get round to. Multiple viewings reward the initially perplexed viewer as not only does Dead Man‘s narrative become clearer each time, but its mysteriousness becomes more enticing, its comic asides more amusing and its peerless visuals more mesmerizing. It was never going to win the Best Picture Oscar but, for me, Dead Man is king of the 90s Westerns.