This week sees the release of the Johnny Depp comedy “Mortdecai,” a film with an ad campaign that seems determined to deter people from seeing it and the latest in a long string of Depp’s “show up and do something wacky” roles. It’s hard to imagine that Depp was once one of the most exciting American actors alive, someone who flocked to idiosyncratic projects that were destined to perform poorly at the box office but gain passionate cult followings. Perhaps the ultimate cult Depp film is Jim Jarmusch’s downbeat acid western “Dead Man,” which was dumped into theaters by Miramax in 1996 and given mixed reviews, only to be resurrected by the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and hailed as one of Jarmusch’s best.
“Dead Man” sees Depp doing something out of the ordinary for him: playing an ordinary person. Depp’s William Blake is a soft-spoken, geeky accountant from Cleveland who arrives in the hellish frontier town of Machine to find his new job filled by another man. Blake is shot by the jealous ex-fiancee of a woman he goes to bed with, and he falls into the company of Nobody (Gary Farmer), an outsider even among fellow Native Americans because of his Western education and unbelievable stories of the white man’s world. Nobody believes Depp to be the lost spirit of the great poet William Blake, and he takes him on a journey across the desert to find a resting place for his spirit, all while he’s being pursued by a trio of bounty hunters (quietly cold-blooded Lance Henrikson, loudmouth Michael Wincott, and youthful Eugene Byrd).
Stripped of his usual eccentricities, Depp gives a brilliantly reactive performance, communicating volumes of fear and bewilderment through his expressive eyes while making every moment one of discovery and self-discovery. Farmer is equally terrific as Nobody, a deadpan guide who never falls victim to the kind of stereotypical behaviors that often characterize Native Americans on film. They’re joined by a murderer’s row of great character actors, from Crispin Glover as a deranged train conductor to Robert Mitchum (in his final notable role) as a shotgun wielding, cigar-chomping industrialist, each representing a different facet of Western civilization’s cruelty.
Jarmusch’s film is spectacularly researched, depicting Native American cultures with great nuance and even featuring unsubtitled conversations featuring in-jokes for Native American viewers. But while the film is rich with cultural allusions and statements about the ravaging of the West, it’s above all else a film of feeling, driven by Robby Muller’s stark black-and-white photography, Neil Young’s hypnotic minimalist score, and Jarmusch’s typically deadpan rhythms. It’s as funny as any of Jarmusch’s films while also being his most pessimistic and doom-laden, and a reminder of a time when Johnny Depp trusted that a project’s strangeness didn’t need manufactured strangeness.
More thoughts from the web:
Anton Bitel, Eye for Film
As a tale of innocence lost, “Dead Man” is the indie flipside of “The Birth Of A Nation” (1915), stripping away DW Griffiths’ racist triumphalism to reveal a wilder, weirder and altogether more spiritual side to America’s national identity. Here Jarmusch shows his unconventional way around the edges of genre cinema, as he would later do again with “Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai” (1999), and the result is a low-key classic of strangely poetic beauty – a western for sleepwalkers and dreamers. Read more.
Like most great westerns, Dead Man holds the American West and its (white) inhabitants up to close scrutiny, and in this sense its radicalism surpasses virtually every earlier example. While didacticism is not Jarmusch’s goal, there is something instructive about Dead Man‘s critique. The film’s power is impossible to extrapolate from its commentary on history and society. One cannot overlook its acknowledgment of environmental degradation associated with progress, its depiction of an indigenous people’s ambivalence to whites and their encroachment, and its nuanced grasp of violence, particularly gun violence (not a simple “anti-gun” op-ed, but a beautifully literal rendition of firearms’ deployment by people in moments of passion, stupidity, and cold anger). Read more.
Dennis Lim, The Los Angeles Times
“Dead Man” goes farther than just about any other neo-western in rethinking the rules of the game, from the depiction of violence to the portrayal of whites and Indians and even to the use of landscape, typically vast spaces of possibility but here filled with foreboding. Read more.
Greil Marcus, Salon
[Among his ten reasons why “Dead Man” was the best movie of the end of the 20th century]: The sense of an undiscovered West — a West that vanished before it could be incorporated into national myth. That’s all there on the train ride from Cleveland to the Pacific, some time after the Civil War, as the white passengers shift inexorably into barbarism. Read more.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
Robby Müller’s stunningly beautiful and exquisitely composed black-and-white cinematography, which includes a wide range of intermediate grays, is punctuated by fade-outs and blackouts between scenes, as if giving us forecasts of Blake’s death even before he’s wounded. Read more.
Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club
With everyone gunning for Blake’s head, the film becomes a succession of tense encounters and deliberately awkward spasms of violence. Resisting the romanticized, slo-mo gunplay that’s become an anti-Western staple since Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” Jarmusch stages the action in “Dead Man” with the same deadpan matter-of-factness that’s long characterized his work. There’s no glamour or satisfaction in people shooting at each other; through Jarmusch’s lens, it looks ugly and pointless, and the fact that a trail of bodies pile up in his hero’s wake is treated with maximum irony. Read more.
Michael Wilmington, The Chicago Tribune