Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Eugene Byrd, John Hurt, Crispin Glover, Robert Mitchum, Mili Avital, Iggy Pop, Gabriel Byrne, Jared Harris, Billy Bob Thornton
Country: USA, Germany, Japan
Running Time: 121 min
Year: 1995
BBFC Certificate: 18 (TBC)

Jim Jarmusch is a director who I’m a little hit and miss with. I love some of his films (Mystery Train and Paterson are particular favourites), but others have left me cold (I found Only Lovers Left Alive far too one-note, for instance). Generally speaking, I find his ‘too cool for school’ hipster schtick hard to stomach when it’s laid on too thick or if I’m just not in the mood.

However, the hits outweigh the misses and I’m a big western fan, so I was delighted to hear Criterion would be releasing Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man on Blu-ray in the UK. I ventured into the American Frontier (or more accurately, my living room) to see how the film and disc held up.

Dead Man sees Johnny Depp play William Blake (not the famous poet and artist, just his namesake), an accountant from Cleveland who travels west to the frontier company town of Machine on the promise that there was a job waiting for him there.

However, the eccentric but frightening boss of the company, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, in one of his last roles), claims the post has already been taken and drives Blake out of his office at gunpoint.

Frustrated and angry, after travelling such a long way and spending the last of his savings to do so, Blake heads into the local saloon to drown his sorrows. There, he meets Thel Russell (Mili Avital) and the pair take a bit of a shining to one another.

Unfortunately, catching the couple in bed is Russell’s former squeeze, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne). He attempts to shoot Blake, killing Russell instead when she puts herself in between them. In a moment of shock and fear, Blake shoots back and kills Charlie.

The bullet that killed Russell went through to Blake’s heart too though, critically injuring him. Despite this, he manages to get out of the hotel and drags himself onto a horse to flee the town.

Out on the road, he’s found unconscious by a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who comes to his aid. Nobody is unable to remove the bullet but treats the wound so that Blake can remain mobile and relatively stable.

Not aiding Blake’s precarious balance on the line between life and death is the fact that Charlie was Dickinson’s son. The wealthy industrialist hires three renowned killers, Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), Conway Twill (Michael Wincott) and Johnny “The Kid” Pickett (Eugene Byrd) to bring Blake to him, “alive or dead, don’t matter. Though I reckon dead would be easier”.

So, whilst Blake and Nobody venture further west, so that the Native American can perform the appropriate death rites on the “stupid white man”, Cole and his cohorts inch ever closer.

Though my synopsis here is fairly lengthy and there is indeed somewhat of a character arc and journey in Dead Man, it largely works as a film that takes a concept and setting and riffs on it through a variety of often episodic sequences.

Jarmusch himself says he added a lot of layers to the film, more than he usually would. As such, it offers no straightforward theme, as such, but a lot of touchpoints to explore and ruminate over. I would say there is enough of an overlying idea to avoid it all feeling scattershot though.

Most notably, the film seems to be a statement against the romantic notion of the Wild West. Not only are the tropes of western films subverted at every turn but, rather than portray the era as a hopeful beginning to the American dream, the West is shown as being in decay, a slow death caused by its own swift, selfish expansion. The villains here embody American capitalism, feeding off others (literally, in one scene) for financial rewards. We also hear of how Christian missionaries would give blankets infected with smallpox, consumption and tuberculosis to the Native Americans, noting how the white man’s religion was forced into the country in a no less aggressive fashion.

The Native Americans, on the other hand, live relatively peacefully in quiet solitude in the wilderness. They respect both life and death whilst the settlers aggressively throw them aside for their own benefit. Nobody provides the connective tissue between the two sides, having been educated by white people and having spent time in Europe.

The bewildered Blake doesn’t understand Nobody’s rituals and philosophies (often quoting the more famous William Blake, unbeknownst to his namesake) but goes along with them. Blake starts as a bookish man out of place from his surroundings but eventually becomes one with them, through his connection with Nobody. He also becomes a cold-hearted killer, albeit one that only kills those that don’t respect the land and native people on it. Nobody helps fashion this change, turning Blake into an avenging angel whose “poetry will be written in blood”. Blake seems bewildered by his transformation though, adding a comic spin to it all.

Indeed, despite the film’s preoccupation with death, there is still much humour to be found in Dead Man, be it Dickinson’s bizarre quirks, Twill’s incessant talking or the strange pseudo-family of miscreants, headed by Iggy Pop in drag as the ‘mother’.

The numerous killings in the film are cold and brutal though. They’re rarely cued up by tense build-up or dramatic music, often coming out of nowhere or treated as a necessity or something approaching a business transaction.

Speaking of music, mention must be made to Neil Young’s excellent score. His spare music here was largely recorded live over 2 days, with Young watching the edited film on the first day, coming up with some ideas in-between, then spending the second day semi-improvising with his guitar and occasionally other instruments whilst the film played in the background. It’s startling in its power, despite its simplicity. The electric guitar lines, in particular, viciously cut through the film, perfectly embodying the violence of the era being portrayed.

The film looks gorgeous too, shot in striking monochrome by regular Jarmusch and Wim Wenders collaborator, Robby Müller. Though there’s a level of stylisation to the visuals, Jarmusch and his production design team still take great care to keep things authentic for the most part. The film’s world feels real and lived in, despite the sumptuous black and white photography.

Jarmusch aimed to avoid stereotypical western imagery too. In an interview, he claims that, when coming across a classic-looking setting during his location scouting, he would always point the camera in the opposite direction to go against the grain. It’s a technique that works because the surroundings look gorgeous, offering a nicely varied view of the Wild West.

The cast is also incredible. On top of the first-rate performers already mentioned, there’s a whole host of big name actors playing only minor parts but making each one memorable. For instance, John Hurt crops up early on, Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop and Jared Harris have fun together in one scene, and Alfred Molina is great as a racist missionary shopkeeper.

The whole William Blake aspect of the film adds another poetic level to it all, though I must admit I’m not well-versed in his work. His inclusion in the film reportedly came quite randomly during the writing process. Jarmusch was getting tired of all the research he was doing into Native American culture so took a break and read some Blake. When he did though, he found a lot of similarities in ideas and use of language, as well as it fitting nicely with the theme of death in his film, so he wove it into the script.

I could go on, as there’s an awful lot to mine from this wonderful film, but I should tie things up before I waffle on any longer. Yes, some of Jarmusch’s typical quirks are here, which I was worried would put me off, but either I was in the right mood or the appealing setting won me over, because I found myself spellbound by this curious dream of a film. Beautifully shot and brimming with humour alongside well-handled social commentary and a little poetry and philosophy, Dead Man surely nestles among my favourite Jarmusch films and casts doubt on my initial ‘hit and miss’ assessment of the director.

Film:

Dead Man is out on 4th April on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. It looks stunning, with a rich contrast range and natural filmic look. It sounds great too with clear details and a penetrating score.

The film comes with several extra features. These include:

– New 4K digital restoration, supervised and approved by director Jim Jarmusch, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
– New Q&A in which Jarmusch responds to questions sent in by fans
– Rarely seen footage of Neil Young composing and performing the film’s score
– New interview with actor Gary Farmer
– New readings of William Blake poems by members of the cast, including Mili Avital, Alfred Molina, and Iggy Pop
– New selected-scene audio commentary by production designer Bob Ziembicki and sound mixer Drew Kunin
– Deleted scenes
– Jarmusch’s location scouting photos
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: Essays by film critic Amy Taubin and music journalist Ben Ratliff

Bob Ziembicki and Drew Kunin’s commentary is listed as being ‘selected-scene’, but runs over the vast majority of the film, so is of considerable value. It provides a conversational look back at the shoot and its practicalities, particularly the sound and production design. The pair talk fondly of the experience and it’s a pleasure to hear their anecdotes.

The audio interview with Jarmusch provides a wide variety of questions and answers about the film and the director himself. It’s highly informative, fascinating and occasionally bizarre. It made me better respect the director, who I’d occasionally thought of as a bit of a pretentious hipster stylist. He comes across here as a highly intelligent, thoughtful person who’s fascinated by details of the world around him.

In his interview, Gary Farmer speaks about how he first met Jarmusch and the spiritual journey he went on before the shoot. He also talks about his relationship with Depp and Neil Young during and after the production. He’s a pleasant and engaging speaker, so I very much enjoyed his interview.

The footage of Neil Young recording the score is rather rough and low-tech but it’s a pleasure to see the great artist at work and it helps you appreciate just how stripped back and improvised the score is.

I found that many of the deleted scenes lost a little of the film’s ambiguity, so I’m glad they were left out of the final film. There’s more of Conway Twill’s jabbering too and a couple of bizarre conversations between Nobody and Blake.

The William Blake poems are a nice touch, giving a flavour of the writer’s work to better appreciate how it’s referenced and explored in the film.

I also enjoyed the photo gallery. I often skip over these, but it was interesting to see the sets and costumes in colour.

I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet, unfortunately.

So, it’s a well-compiled package to go with an excellent film and comes easily recommended.

Disc/Package:

* I must also credit Kevin Grant & Clark Hodgkiss’ book ‘Renegade Westerns’ for helping shape my review. I highly recommend it to any fans of the genre. It’s available to buy over at Fab Press.

Dead Man - Criterion
Film
Disc/Package
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