Dead Man Review

1876. Mild-mannered accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) travels west to the outlaw town of Machine to take up a job at Dickinson Metalworks. He finds that he’s arrived a month late and the job is taken. Blake asks to speak to Mr Dickinson (Robert Mitchum) but he threatens Blake with a gun and runs him out of the building. At a saloon, Blake meets Thel (Mili Avital), but their romantic interlude is interrupted by her ex-lover Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne). Shots ring out. Charlie and Thel are dead. William Blake is now a wanted man.

If, as I said in my review, Night on Earth seemed like a summing up of Jarmusch’s work to date, Dead Man saw him moving in a new direction. With the possible exception of his very first film, the colour 16mm feature Permanent Vacation (which I haven’t seen), all of Jarmusch’s earlier films were made up of linked episodes, while Dead Man is a more fully-integrated narrative. The earlier films were basically comedies; Dead Man is fundamentally serious. It’s also a genre film, namely a western, though hardly a traditional or conventional one.

Jarmusch’s view of the Old West is certainly not romantic. When Blake arrives in Machine, we see his first view of the town in a series of tracking shots. It’s a dirty, violent, corrupt place, only emphasised by Robby Müller’s black and white camerawork. William Blake is a passive protagonist, more acted upon that acting, as he transforms from nerdy accountant to killer at large. For much of his journey he’s accompanied by an English-speaking Native American called Nobody (Gary Farmer), who believes that Blake is a reincarnation of the English poet and mystic of the same name. By the end of the film, Blake has travelled far beyond the white man’s civilisation.

This may be a Western, but it’s fair to say that it’s also a Jarmusch film and hence very likely to be an acquired taste. More conservative Western fans will likely hate this film, as it debunks the traditional cinematic myths of the Old West while trying to create its own. The pace is, as usual with this director, measured, and there are moments of quirky humour and some oddball supporting characters.

Also new to Jarmusch’s work were some scenes of graphic violence, resulting in his first and so far only UK 18 certificate. This culminates in a scene where hired killer Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), who has been put on Blake’s trail, crushes a corpse’s head under his boot. Squeamish viewers take note. (Want to know what nearly caused this film to be banned in Australia? Twelve minutes in, Blake passes a man with a gun being fellated by a woman in an alleyway. The Australian censor, the OFLC, seeing this as an unacceptable image of sexual violence, rejected the film, though it was classified for adults only on appeal.)

Jarmusch has gathered possibly the best cast of his entire career, including Robert Mitchum, who gives the two scenes of his final role considerable presence. You can well believe that he’s a threat. For a major star, Johnny Depp has taken considerable risks throughout his career and he gives the role of Blake a charisma that’s certainly offbeat but undeniably there. Gary Farmer gives strong back-up as Nobody, a part he reprised in Jarmusch’s next film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

On the technical side, the two standout contributions are Robby Müller’s black and white camerawork and Neil Young’s score. With his work with Wim Wenders, Sally Potter on The Tango Lesson and with Jarmusch on Down by Law, this film and one segment of Coffee and Cigarettes, Müller has proved himself one of the finest exponents of black and white photography amongst younger DPs. His work on Dead Man is exemplary, ably conveying the shift in tone from the grime and violence of Machine, to the more abstract and mythic feel of the later scenes in the countryside: black white and every shade of grey in between. It’s real black and white too, not filmed - as many contemporary monochrome films are - on colour stock.

Young’s score is certainly not your usual Western music. You could claim it as anachronistic, based as it is on electric guitar (improvised by Young), but it’s certainly effective. Like the film itself, it’s liable to be an acquired taste.

Dead Man marked a new direction in Jarmusch’s work, away from films made up of shorter pieces towards more developed longer work, and towards genre work filtered through his offbeat sensibility. This has continued with his next feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. (As I write this I’ve yet to see his new one, Broken Flowers) Certainly not everyone will like it – and I do think it’s overlong – but Dead Man is certainly one of a kind.

Universal’s DVD is released as a Virgin exclusive until 3 January 2006. The disc is encoded for Region 2 only.

Dead Man is transferred to DVD in its original ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. (Some reference sources suggest that the film was shot in Scope, but that isn’t correct.) It’s an excellent transfer, sharp and with solid blacks and good shadow detail. As often with black and white films, there’s noticeable grain, but it’s not distracting.

There is one soundtrack option, which is Dolby Surround (2.0 played in analogue/ProLogic mode). Given how recent the film is, it’s a pity that it couldn’t have been given a 5.1 mix. As it is, the dialogue is usually clear and there’s quite a lot of surround usage, mostly ambient sound and Young’s music score. Subtitles are provided, which is a plus.

The extras comprise the theatrical trailer (1:59) and a set of out-takes and deleted scenes (14:59), all in non-anamorphic 1.85:1. Dead Man premiered at Cannes in a version running some two and a quarter hours before being re-edited by Jarmusch to its present length, and it would have been useful to know if any of these scenes appeared in the longer cut, or indeed some information as to why they were omitted. As it is, they play one after the other and can’t be selected individually.

Jarmusch fans will certainly buy this DVD at the earliest opportunity. This probably isn’t the best introduction to the director’s films, so I would suggest newcomers try one of his more accessible works before moving on to this.

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