Dead Man is not a strange film. I haven’t seen it in ten years and I’ve probably seen the majority of the Westerns I’ve seen in that interim. So the opening, as Johnny Depp watches the familiar Western trappings pass from a train window, probably didn’t resonate on my last viewing. What Jarmusch doesn’t get enough credit for–though I really don’t know, it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to have a conversation with someone about Jarmusch–is his dialogue. IMDb doesn’t list it as such, but Dead Man is great comedy. It’s one of the funnier films I’ve seen lately. Besides Gary Farmer, who maintains funniness throughout the film (even when he and Depp’s relationship gets poignant), Jarmusch has his two trios. In the first, there’s Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott and Eugene Byrd. Dead Man might feature Wincott’s finest performance; he’s phenomenal as a motormouthed assassin. Byrd plays the straight man, with Henriksen the unknowing butt of the jokes. This interplay lasts the majority of the film, until Henriksen becomes the knowing butt of Wincott’s joke. The second trio–Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop and Jared Harris–only have a scene, but it’s an amazing one. Thornton’s gift for delivery is clear here, but it’s Pop who steals the show (it isn’t hard, since he’s the only one wearing a bonnet).
The humor–down to Robert Mitchum’s cameo–is all relatively straightforward, presented in dialogue and visuals. Even Farmer’s funniest scenes are because of his dialogue. Meanwhile, Johnny Depp’s trip through Dead Man is tonal. It’s Robby Müller shooting black and white like a Frenchman from the 1930s, the film clearly filmed on location, but still infused with a hyper-reality. The skies are too dark or too bright to be real. Neil Young’s score sometimes becomes the focal point, as it’s the only clue into what Depp’s experiencing. Depp’s character is a genre standard, a quiet man forced into violence by circumstance. Jarmusch’s added ingredients–Depp’s death is inevitable from the start (due to a bullet near the heart) and Farmer as a Native American guide–really aren’t unprecedented. Where Dead Man‘s different is in the presentation of the story.
There’s also the politics of Dead Man–the Western is probably the most political genre. From the opening slaughter of buffalo to the smallpox-infected blankets at the end (even if blankets couldn’t carry the virus), Jarmusch indicts Manifest Destiny with Dead Man. But he escapes propaganda by wowing with the beauty of the untouched American landscape. Discovering the beauty of the natural world is part of Depp’s trip in the film. The viewer’s too.
Jarmusch–through Farmer–neatly sends the viewer home at the end of Dead Man after privileging him or her to particular journey. Back when Dead Man came out, I remember a friend of mine always wanted to know what color Depp’s suit really was, figuring Jarmusch had to make him wear something wacky (and Mitchum’s line about the clown suit really does encourage speculation). I really want to know what, in the dramatic vehicle, Gabriel Byrne brought for Mili Avital. I hope it was silk.
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; director of photography, Robby Müller; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; music by Neil Young; production designer, Bob Ziembicki; produced by Demetra J. MacBride; released by Miramax Films.
Starring Johnny Depp (William Blake), Gary Farmer (Nobody), Crispin Glover (Train Fireman), Lance Henriksen (Cole Wilson), Michael Wincott (Conway Twill), Eugene Byrd (Johnny ‘The Kid’ Pickett), John Hurt (John Scholfield), Robert Mitchum (John Dickinson), Iggy Pop (Salvatore ‘Sally’ Jenko), Gabriel Byrne (Charlie Dickinson), Jared Harris (Benmont Tench), Mili Avital (Thel Russell) and Billy Bob Thornton (Big George Drakoulious).