"It is preferable not to travel with a dead man."
Jim Jarmusch's (STRANGER THAN PARADISE, DOWN BY LAW, and MYSTERY
TRAIN) latest film is his best. The film is entitled DEAD MAN, not to
be confused with the completely different DEAD MAN WALKING from last
year. Although I have not been a Jarmusch fan before this picture, I
am now. DEAD MAN features a great performance by the ever enthralling
Johnny Depp (ED WOOD, DON JUAN DEMARCO and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS),
impressive and moving black and white cinematography by Robby Mueller
(TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA and REPO MAN), and a score by Neil Young so
strong that it dominates, but never overpowers the picture. Although
the show is quirky enough not to be everyone's cup of tea, I was blown
away by it.
DEAD MAN is a mystical journey set in the old West in the later
half of the nineteenth century. An accountant with the same name as
the great English visionary poet, painter, and inventor William Blake
(Johnny Depp) leaves on a train to travel deeper and deeper into the
wilderness of the American West. He is going to the end of the line to
the filthy town of Mechanic to accept a job offer.
Possibly the best scene is on the train to Mechanic. Blake keeps
falling asleep and when he awakens his fellow passengers keep changing,
getting scruffier and rougher (thanks to great costumes by Marit
Allen), whereas he is wearing a fancy outfit described by others as a
clown outfit. He shows his job offer to the train's ethereal fireman
(Crispin Glover). The fireman prophetically advises him, "I wouldn't
trust no words written on no piece of paper." The coal dust make-up
(Neal Martz) on the fireman gives him a realistic but macabre
When Blake arrives, he finds the owner of the metalworks, John
Dickenson (Robert Mitchum) has already given his job to someone else.
Office manager John Scholfield (John Hurt) roars in laugher at city
slicker Blake and thinks it fitting he lost his job.
Through even more bad luck, Blake hooks up with Thel Russel (Mili
Avital). He is in bed with her when Dickenson's son and Thel's long
gone fiance, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) shows up. Thel and Charlie both
get killed. This sets up the body of the movie, as Dickenson hires the
three best gunslingers around, Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), Conway
Twill (Michael Wincott), and Johnny Picket (Eugene Byrd), to bring
Blake back - dead or alive. Along his spiritual journey, Blake teams
up with a rotund Indian whose name means, "He who talks much and says
nothing", but who goes by the nickname of Nobody (Gary Farmer). Also
along his odyssey, he comes across a group of unusual animal skinners,
Big George Drakulious (Billy Bob Thompson), Salvatore Jenko (Iggy Pop),
and Benmont Tench (Jarred Harris), two marshals (Jimmie Ray Weeks and
Mark Bringelson), and an anti-Christian Christian missionary (Alfred
The acting in the show is sharp and taut. There are two
outstanding performances by Depp and Farmer. Depp can convey more
through just expressions than most loquacious actors can with volumes
of words. In a film whose strength lies in its bold imagery, the
casting of Depp as the lead is brilliant. Farmer plays an assertive,
fresh mouthed Indian with a natural gift for humor. Nobody has Blake
wrapped around his fingers. I loved Farmer just as much as Depp in the
The script by Jim Jarmusch is smart and biting. When Nobody meets
Blake he demands, "What name were you given at birth stupid white man?"
When he replies "William Blake", Nobody is in rapture since William
Blake is his favorite poet, and he decides this man must be he. Soon
Nobody is off reciting his favorite Blake passages, "Some are born to
sweet delight; some are born to endless night." When Blake is
surprised that Nobody knows they are being followed, Nobody explains,
"The evil stench of white man precedes him."
The director's pacing and the relaxed and smooth editing by Jay
Rabinowitz make for a dreamy show. Most scenes have dramatic Neil
Young electric guitar music, cinematography with sharp black and
whites, but with highly gradational grays, and long blank places
between words. This is a director who knows the value of a character's
silence and how to use it to maximum effect. I do not remember a movie
where the music worked better or where it was more central to the
success of the film. I am not a Neil Young fan either, but I was
mesmerized by his work here.
As the show was drawing to a close, I began to wonder how they
would end it. To me the ending is perfect, and it provides a beautiful
symmetry to the beginning. When the show was over and the house lights
went up, I felt privileged to have seen a incredible piece of cinematic
art. Totally unique. To be fair, I later got into a conversation with
a local newspaper movie critic who found only the opening scene
appealing, but I loved DEAD MAN from beginning to end.
DEAD MAN runs 2:07. It is rated R for some sex, brief nudity, and
some very violent scenes like the one where they slice someone's skin
and blood spurts out. I think it would be fine for any mature
teenager. For some movies like ANNE FRANK REMEMBERED and THE JOY LUCK
CLUB, a critic can recommend it knowing that almost everyone will love
it, where in other films like DEAD MAN, it is not so clear.
Nevertheless I recommend this show to you strongly if you are the last
bit adventuresome in your cinematic tastes, and I award it *** 1/2.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes