Innocence And Experience
Johnny Depp stars in Jim Jarmusch’s psychedelic, cameo-packed Western
Published: February 27, 2013
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Playing at the Charles Theatre March 6 as part of Gunky’s Basement Revival Series
True Grit meets Tarantino meets Stranger Than Paradise in Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch’s black-and-white psychedelic Western from 1995. Desaturated scenes of a fur coat-clad Johnny Depp leading dappled horses through the wilderness abound, as do bullet-riddled sequences that leave men lying dead in the leaves and leisurely shots of blood spilling out of knife wounds. Sporadic, reverb-heavy guitar licks—courtesy of Neil Young—back Dead Man, which unfolds slowly, moseying along with an even gait, much like the horse that carries its protagonist.
Mild-mannered William Blake (Depp), a bespectacled accountant from Cleveland, arrives out West via railroad. Jarmusch portrays the changing landscape outside the train and the rough-and-tumble people who ride it with him in the film’s opening sequence: William Blake, dressed in a plaid suit, hair neatly combed, peers out the train window at the scenery whooshing past; across from him sit other men in suits and hats, men reading the paper; cut to a shot of Blake waking up in his seat—he looks at the mountains passing by outside, then at the new, smiling country folk in the railcar. This pattern is repeated twice more, with Blake raising his eyes to discover his fellow passengers, now totally different—wizened, mustachioed men with rifles, fur coats, cowboy hats, and coonskin caps. Clean-shaven Blake looks ridiculous by comparison—delicate, almost feminine—and he’s told as much in Machine (located in some unnamed western state), where he has traveled to fill a post as an accountant for Dickinson Metal Works, the life force of the sleepy community.
After navigating his way through the dreary town, which has symbols of death at every turn (coffins, animal skulls), Blake goes to the office of his employer only to be told that his position has been filled, that he’s arrived a month late. He tries to assert himself to gruff Mr. Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), who trains a rifle on Blake and tells him to get out; Blake is laughed out of the office.
He wanders through town, stopping at a saloon for some booze. He drinks alone, outside, perched on the porch step. Blake sticks out not only in cleanliness but in passivity. Everyone else is dirty, pushing, and gunslinging. But that doesn’t prevent him from winding up in bed with a comely prostitute-turned-paper-flower pusher (Mili Avital) who keeps a pistol under her pillow—a pistol that comes in handy moments later, when another of the woman’s lovers (Gabriel Byrne) enters; dismayed at the sight of Blake, the man professes his love for her, and then vengefully fires his gun at the pair, sending a bullet into the woman’s bosom. Startled, injured, Blake shoots the man, missing twice before finally hitting flesh. He flees, falling out of the woman’s bedroom window, strewing her paper flowers on the mud as he rides away into the night.
Blake becomes a fugitive. The man he killed turns out to be Mr. Dickinson’s son, and the horse he absconds with is a beloved pinto belonging to Dickinson too. Thus, three bounty hunters renowned for their mercilessness are rounded up and sent after Blake, who luckily befriends an imposing Native American by the name of Nobody (Gary Farmer). Nobody, despite his suspicion of white men, bandages up Blake. When he learns William Blake’s name, he believes the accountant to be the English poet and takes Blake on, engendering a classicaly Jarmuschian cross-cultural friendship like the one between Roberto Benigni, Tom Waits, and John Lurie in Down By Law. Blake—wounded, still in his plaid suit, a faint peach fuzz coming in on his face—remains dependent on Nobody’s guidance for some time before Nobody thrusts him into a camp of fur traders (comically played by Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, and Jared Harris). As seems to happen with all encounters in this West, death ensues. Blake kills another white man, taking the next step in his transformation from diffident accountant to unhesitating outlaw. Soon, Nobody sets Blake on a vision quest, which propels Blake further down this path. Throats are slit, men are shot, hands are stabbed. William Blake’s stubble grows in more and more.
Don’t be fooled by the relative star-studdedness of Dead Man—like Ghost Dog, which starred Forrest Whitaker or Broken Flowers with Bill Murray, it remains very much a product of celebrated indie director Jim Jarmusch. While the film is peppered with well-known faces and moments of dark humor, its pacing prevents it from having the commercial palatability of, say, Django Unchained. Dead Man leans toward the postmodern, making various allusions as its story line unravels. The black-and-white shots are often striking, and the electric-guitar soundtrack that accompanies them is equally and appropriately sparse. But as William Blake makes his two-hour-long transformation, one may chafe at the slow guitar riffs, wishing that both Young and Jarmusch would pick up speed.
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