With Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson being released this month, what better time to revisit his mysterious and undeniably alluring neo-Western masterpiece, Dead Man.
Premiered at Cannes in 1995, the film opened to mixed reviews and even made a hefty loss at the box office upon its cinematic release. However, as with much of Jarmusch’s work, time has been a strong ally, and the film has gained somewhat of a cult status for many.
Set sometime in the 19th Century, Dead Man tells the curious tale of William Blake, a timid accountant from Cleveland (played by a brilliantly understated Johnny Depp) who finds himself wanted for murder in the Old West. Blake eventually finds protection in a Native American loner who goes by the name Nobody, the pair travel together staving off bandits and law enforcements until they eventually meet their poetic end as Blake drifts off into the sea in a Native American burial canoe.
It’s difficult to think of a time when Johnny Depp wasn’t churning out wacky roles in consistently terrible films, (Pirates of the Caribbean, Mortdecai). Depp actually starred in a string of great films in the 1990’s, and Dead Man offered him perhaps his weirdest and most interesting role. It’s a minimalistic performance, with Depp expressing vast ranges of emotion with just a twitch of his eyes, rather than with dialogue.
Shot in stark black and white by regular Jarmusch cinematographer Robby Müller, Dead Man looks beautifully bleak, perfectly matching the film’s drearily comic tone. It is worth noting that Robby Müller also shot Jarmusch’s black and white minimalistic debut, Stranger than Paradise, as well as being a long-time Wim Wenders collaborator, being responsible for the glorious photography of Paris, Texas.
Dead Man’s numerous cameos are also worth noting, they are plentiful and equally marvellous. Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) plays a seemingly deranged train fireman, John Hurt turns up as a tough business manager, and then there’s the legend that is Robert Mitchum in his last ever film role (he tragically passed away in 1997) as a shotgun-wielding maniacal business owner. Also appearing in brief yet brilliant roles are Billy Bob Thornton, Gabriel Byrne, Alfred Molina and Iggy Pop as a cross-dressing religious fanatic. Hunting Blake and Nobody throughout is the murderous cannibalistic bounty hunter Cole Wilson, played with sadistic gusto by Lance Henriksen (you may know him better as Bishop from Aliens).
Accompanying Jarmusch’s wonderfully bizarre and alluring mystery is an unforgettable score by Neil Young. The guitar-heavy soundtrack was improvised almost entirely by Young as he watched the film alone in a recording studio. Comprising of simple, low-toned guitar riffs, Young’s score is dark, cryptic and mystifying, it almost echoes a murky, shadowy version of Ry Cooder’s iconic guitar in Paris, Texas.
Like Paterson, Dead Man has a strong connection to poetry: it’s clearly no coincidence that Depp’s accountant cum-killer is named William Blake and Nobody regularly recites his work during the film.
Jarmusch is a director whose work is often poetic, and his attraction to poetry evidently seeps in to his films, no more so than in Dead Man and now Paterson. This darkly comic acid Western is an understated masterpiece that is one of the best films to come out of the 1990’s, and in my opinion, represents Jarmusch’s pinnacle.