Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch 1995)

by Douglas Buck August 19, 2020 6 minutes (1295 words) 4k restoration Cinéma Moderne, Montreal

Even with so many films viewed (more obsessively now than ever, driven by the increasing anxiety at the reality of aging, as the date of my origin moves further and further away in the rear-view mirror, barely a dot now on the dusty horizon, while the cliff at the end of the road ahead rapidly approaches, with what seems like exponentially growing speed), still, I admit (often sheepishly) to any number of frustrating blank spots in the film catalogues of my memory banks. And the oeuvre of New York indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch happens to be one of the glaring ones. I saw his Broken Flowers, in the theater when it came out in 2005, mostly because my film compadre Larry Fessenden was in it, remember liking it and that’s it; the only one seen (even though Larry’s been in at least one other one).

So when Moderne suddenly decided to showcase 4k restorations of two Jarmusch films, I figured it was time to grab a seat, throw on my Covid mask (occasionally pulling it down in the darkened theater when no one was looking so I could at least take a fucking normal breath once in awhile) and check them out, allowing me to cross a few more off that damn list of unseen movies (at least a few less regrets on my eventual death bed, I say).

The setting is the wild West, with the story following the considerably odd journey of one William Blake (Johnny Depp) an accountant from Cleveland who arrives in the frontier company town of Machine for the job he’s promised, only to find himself shit out of luck and almost immediately on the run, accused of the lurid murder of the son of the town’s owner, the ruthless Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), aided by the burly and wise Native American who calls himself Nobody (Gary Farmer) — allowing him of course the chance to say ‘My name is Nobody’ (straight out of the Sergio Leone school) — who helps Blake because he believes the initially bumbling business flunky to be the reincarnation of the similarly named beloved poet, and running into a bevy of odd characters, either those also living outside of society, or those after him.

Jarred Harris (I think!) and Lance Henriksen

From its very particular, fairly long opening of Blake travelling across the open country by train, with the returning fade outs on the chugging steel wheels denoting continuous passages of time, then returning us into the cab to the befuddled accountant awaking again, to the uneasy experience of finding the mostly roughshod, suspicious looking occupants all about him constantly changing or shifting about in the train car, then on into Blake’s odd experience at the town’s metal works, where he’s met by odd glances as he walks to meet the shop steward (John Hurt), who can only snicker in his face at thinking there’s a job available for him, Jarmusch’s film immediately announces itself for the amusing, oddball and Kafka-esque journey it’ll end up being (and as anyone who has seen enough of the spaghettis knows, the Western is nothing if not a great place for experimentation, with Jarmusch-cool post-modernism fitting it as well as Leone opera, or Sollima leftist politics, or Eastwood elevated horror – in the Eastwood case, I’m talking the amazing High Plains Drifter – it’s an open canvas of a genre that any filmmaker with a vision can paint on).

Johnny Depp

My understanding of Jarmusch, the New York indie straight out of the Lower East Side was as a hip (and I don’t mean ‘hipster’, I mean genuinely ‘hip’ – in his case, hueing close to the literary sensibilities of the beatniks, riffing on jazz and life on the fringes, with a sensibility engaging enough to seemingly continue to remain at least somewhat relevant to whatever new cool kids come along), infused with an amusing and unique ironic sensibility (yet not a detached one – hence, ‘hip’ and not ‘hipster’) and a flair for creating colorful and engaging characters that illuminate his particular outsider perspective… and while the second film in this little mini-Moderne Jarmusch fest certainly confirmed my understanding (but more about the joyous Down by Law in my next post), Dead Man came as more of a surprise. Then again, based upon the lukewarm response I remember it getting at the time, perhaps it shouldn’t have.

Robert Mitchum

Shot in gorgeous black and white, it has a far more assured sense to its direction and composition that I was expecting; it plays on a much larger formalistic canvas than I expected from the director, making it quite clear that Jarmusch understands cinema (a helpful criteria if you wanna dabble in this particular genre). Depp’s understated style, with his consistently perplexed look creating an amusingly absurdist performance, is a highlight, refreshing to see after having watched him flounder about uselessly, all face mannerisms and tics and zero internal life, in one empty Tim Burton film after another (in the actor’s defense, the performance is guided along by a director with a vision for the character within the landscape, unlike many of Burton’s misguided efforts at the time, a director coming across more and more as if his muse is slowly evaporating).

With an impressive cavalcade of familiar faces – everyone from Crispin Glover, Iggy Pop (in drag, without any explanation), Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, Lance Henriksen, the aforementioned Mitchum, John Hurt (there’s more… that’s all I can think of off the top of my head), all happily channeling Jarmusch’s unique sensibility (guess they were all happy to do a film for him), Dead Man is a pleasure to watch.

Prostitute with William Blake

The film has that initial Kafka-esque (and Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”-like ‘world of suffocating machinery’) quality, in that our man Blake seems entirely victimized by a set of larger forces (and mechanisms) set up by powerful figures that he can’t possibly understand (because they don’t make sense) – and, unlike Kafka’s K, he might have a name, but even that, the unsettled accountant slowly learns, informed by his Native American pal, might be because he’s actually the reincarnation of someone else and in fact be identity-less himself – only Jarmusch’s vision is much less harsh. Blake does find his courage, becoming a true man-on-the-run able to defend himself (while still being amusingly bumbling), yet at the same time, through the wisdom brought by Nobody, begins to understand that he’s still small and without control – only to spiritual forces, as absurd and un-understandable as those run by powerful men and bureaucracy, but ones perhaps more peaceful, and perhaps even worth giving yourself over to.

Moments such as the ‘squishing of the head’ bit are too broad for my tastes (and seem misguided as to exactly what the intent even is, especially in that case). Jarmusch works better in the film when understating the responses to the obvious absurdism (which is, thankfully, often). The performance by Powers as Nobody is the perfect representation of the entire film actually; kinda goofy, absurd, amusingly deadpan… but imbued with enough thoughtfulness (in his character’s case, with the recognition of the repression him and his people have endured by the White Man) to allow just the right touch of poignancy to resonate under its surface charm. And it’s all helped along by the sharp chords and meandering riffs of one musical legend Neil Young, who seems perfectly placed in the milieu of Jarmusch, giving the the impression of having sat in front of the film and recording the whole thing in a day… with the instrumental score turning out as a perfect complement to the movie itself; melodic and playful… yet kinda haunting.

Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch 1995)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   gary farmer   jim jarmusch   johnny depp   neil young   postmodernism   western