The Best Movie You Never Saw: Dead Man starring Johnny Depp

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at DEAD MAN.

THE STORY: After murdering a prominant local man, meek accountant Bill Blake finds himself pursued by bounty hunters and partnered with an outcast Native American man named Nobody who believes it is his purpose to prepare Blake for his return journey to the spirit world.

THE PLAYERS: Writer/director Jim Jarmusch. Composer Neil Young. Actors Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Gabriel Byrne, John Hurt, Iggy Pop, Lance Henrikson, Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, Alfred Molina, Crispin Glover, Michael Wincott, Mili Avital, and Robert Mitchum in one of his final film roles. Cinematographer Robby Müller.

Also, the poetry of William Blake.

THE HISTORY: The seeds of who Jim Jarmusch is seem to have been there from the beginning of his film career, growing up from his gut instict through his compassionate heart to his wild mind. He's the kind of guy who, when tasked by a teacher to put more action in his script, went away and took out action instead. And, somehow, it worked. His storytelling instincts, his simple yet unshakeable faith in strolling to the strum of his own guitar, have only become more and more assured as he tackles new genres, new structures, new characters. DEAD MAN came approximately halfway through his career, following experiments in multiple intersecting narratives with MYSTERY TRAIN and emotionally intersecting narratives with NIGHT ON EARTH.

Those storytelling insticts, a budget of $9 million, and an already curious and unique career managed to secure him a stellar cast, a brilliant cinematographer, and a legendary composer, and DEAD MAN premiered at Canned Film Fesitval in May of 1995. It saw domestic release a year later, and by the end of its run had brought in a little over $1 million. The range of reviews were as wide as the West itself, calling the film everything from "a strange, slow, unrewarding movie that provides us with more time to think about its meaning than with meaning" (Roger Ebert) to  All of which probably surprised no one, least of all Jim Jarmusch. 

[Jim Jarmusch] has the confidence and the guts to not know things sometimes. To not give you the answers, and to leave the whole thing as a question mark... I think you can really see that in Dead Man... The film is not an answer to anything. It just raises questions about the relationship between nobleness and cruelty. He raises those questions in your head. At the same time in person, Jarmusch has this clown in him, and also a philosopher. He's a very serious man but at the same time he's a complete clown... You ask him a serious question and he'll say 'what are you asking me for? I'm the last person you should ask'. - Mili Avital

WHY IT'S GREAT: if you've heard of DEAD MAN, then you've probably heard something along the lines of how it's "an acid trip Western" or a "psychedelic Western," or maybe how it's not even really a Western. All of these things are true, and all of these things are something other than truth. Which works out, considering how the surface form taken by this story's telling - that is, a Western - is itself an ever-shifting one that draws equally from fact, fiction, and fiction that has become fact. Since the first days of celluloid the film industry mined the true history and tall tales of the American West for material. And since those first days much has been said in film criticism about how the genre articulates a mythological history of the United States, providing a canvas of legend on which anyone might paint – or repaint – their destiny and their story. 

But as society has shifted, as world events of great wonder and horrific wrong have occurred concurrently with cinema's own evolution since the late 1800s, what we call “civilization” has been forced to face its legends. Societally we have had to question what those same legends say about us, their consumers and creators. What were those dreams, and what are they worth now? And, perhaps most relevant for this film, does the way we dream change as we draw closer to to death? When we're forced to face it, the inevitability of death changes us. And we cannot change the fact that it changes us. Whether as witnesses to it or dealers of it, it is the journey of life in response to death's eternal presence that define us.

The film makes no bones about this, beginning with Bill Blake riding a train away from death - literally in terms of having buried his parents and figuratively in having lost a fiancee - towards the west, towards the open expanses of opportunity and a job and a new life. Jarmusch even takes the time to show us this, with an extended (and suitably strange) opening sequence that brings us alongside Blake as he journeys from what he knew to somewhere new and unknown. It's an odd way to begin a film, introducing characters and details that are essential in their moment and then, when gone from view, fade back into the murky waters of memory. 

But it sets the tone for the sort of film we're about to see. And, somehow, this too works. 

We did a lot of interesting things while scouting this film together, which was we’d find the most dramatic, incredibly beautiful landscape you could imagine, and then we would turn our backs on it, and film the other way. And this is something Robbie was like ‘look how magnificent that is, we’ve seen it in a fucking calendar. Let’s look: over there is a small tree and a rock, very sad and emotional.’ You know? So we would film that instead. - Jim Jarmusch

But the scholarly dissections of DEAD MAN are many, and my job here isn't so much to join them as it is to tell you a bit about why you should see this film. If you're a student of cinema, see it for its experiments in the rhythm of its visual narrative - strongly inspired by the poetry of engraver William Blake, the editing (with all its fade outs) and the characters' constant journey ever westward speak to a structure that's almost like poetry itself. It works on you, slowly but powerfully, a pull that slowly becomes more and more hypnotic even as it firmly eschews traditional Hollywood beats of momentum and tension. If you're a fan of Johnny Depp, see it for an early career turn that showcases a kind of subtlety that anchors the film in an impressive way. When asked why he sought out Depp for the role, one far more passive than the genre usually sees its hero be, Jarmusch explained "he has a very fresh, very pure personality, a whiteness that makes you want to cover it with graffiti.” It was the tabula rasa aspect, not so much for us to identify with but as a character who could reflect what his actions and his world are doing to him, and Depp is amply able to provide it without losing the honest, beating heart of a human being in increasingly stranger circumstances.

He's not the only one. As with any Jarmusch film - or, speaking of a frequent collaborator of his, any Tom Waits song - a cast of peculiar characters pervade and parade their way through the film, weaving in and out almost more as they see fit than as expectation or any guiding narrative voice might dictate. In particular they collectively bring a core defining element of this film experience, that of a pathos that might otherwise be missing. Humor, bleak and odd as its form may find itself to me. Loss and grief, played with simplicity and grace. Anger and vileness, plain and ugly. Joy that bursts out like a bird taking flight. Plenty of faces that you'll recognize and a few that you won't, and either way you won't forget them or the work they do here.

Special note must be paid to the point that this is probably the single best film you'll find made by a non-First Nation creator about those cultures. Representations of language, art, perspective, and ritual are accurate, with much of the dialogue spoken in languages other than English left untranslated so as to give viewers who know something special for themselves. In an industry and a country that still represses their opportunities for expression, education and information are the tools of change. Yes, some are happening, but due solely to a lifetime of persistence from those with personal stakes in the matter. There is an audience out there who rarely gets to see stories told that even include them, let alone which are about them. DEAD MAN is one such film, and it is superb as an eduction of what is possible.

I heard music but I didn’t hear any lyrics. Because the film itself is like a song, so it has the lyrics in it. – Neil Young

If you ever take notice of film scores then I offer an even more unique reason to check out DEAD MAN: an entire score by Neil Young himself, composed and performed at more or less the same time over the course of two days and three full viewings of the two-and-a-half hour rough cut. Jarmusch explains: “Neil eventually played pump organ, detuned piano, and acoustic guitar, but the largest percentage of the music is from his electric guitar. What he brought to the film lifts it to another level, intertwining the soul of the story with Neil’s musically emotional reaction to it – the guy reached down to some deep place inside him to create such strong music for our film.” Like the blank slate of Bill Blake, Young witnessed acts and images and was changed by them. His response reveals their impact, their weight, their wonder, their damage, their ancient connection to us.

And if you're a fan of cinematography in particlar, of genuinely artistic composition that tells an entire story unto itself, DEAD MAN has this in spades. Jarmusch and Müller capture the American West with a starkness that is as beautiful as it is chilling, photographing stunning pockets of that wild country even as they juxtapose it with brief bursts of brutal and violent imagery that are as equally strikingly composed. Their work speaks to the layers of storytelling going on throughout the film, one which makes up for its fairly threadbare core story progression with so many other stories told  purely visually. Relationships of characters to each other, relationships of characters to themselves, relationships of characters to the land (which is itself a character) - look just a little below the surface of the technically impressive compositions, and you'll see one story. Look a a step deeper, you'll see another. In a cinematic era where the story of so many films is little more than exactly what you hear and the action is a pleasantly distracting stimulation of the senses, DEAD MAN offers an opportunity to remember the medium's wider potential on a subtler scale.

Most of all though, for all of those technical trappings - performance, score, cinematography, dialogue - this is a film about life. The continuence of it, the eternal recurrence of it, the journey of it. We are all dead men and women and both and neither, from the moment we are born. But as the mission undertaken by Gary Farmer's character of Nobody illustrates, that doesn't mean our stories stop. To him, in his world view, life tiself is an unending cycle.

After all, we know now there is no new matter in the universe. And we are all recycled stardust.

We’re all in a weird way on the verge of death every second. The only way to live your life is to know that the ultimate thing that you’re going to meet is doctor doom... - Johnny Depp


The score is what haunts me, what captures DEAD MAN's spirit best. So here's a slice, taken from the opening credits.


You can buy DEAD MAN on Blu-Ray + DVD HERE!


[William Blake] made an accidental entrance into the film right before I started writing it. The character wasn’t even named William Blake originally. I collected all my notes on the film and was about to write the script and I was reading all these books by American Indian people. Then I put all that stuff away and picked up William Blake, who I read a lot when I was younger but hadn’t read for awhile, and I was just struck by the connection in thought between a lot of the stuff I was reading and a lot of Blake’s work. He just walked into the film on his own. After the film was shot, I started seeing even more connections. If you’re interested in Blake, it’s woven in there pretty deeply. If you’re not, it doesn’t take away from the film.

Extra Tidbit: Circling back around to near the beginning of this entry, here's some advice from Jarmusch himself about viewing the film: "Cultures clash and everything around them seems chaotic but all those things are sub-themes around this basic story of two guys. The nuances make the film rich and psychedelic. I think it’s a better film if you’ve seen it more than once but it’s hard to tell my distributors that because they say, 'How the hell are we going to get them in there to see it once?' But I think the film is better if you’ve seen it more than once, because you can trip to it after you’ve seen the plot. Those other levels seep in if you’re not concentrating on the storyline."
Source: JoBlo



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