#244 Dead Man

(1995, Jim Jarmusch)

“Your poetry will now be written in blood”

WESTERNS! As regular readers will know, I hate Westerns and have yet to see one I’ve particularly liked, especially if John Wayne is in it. That said, Dead Man is an unusual Western, one that stars professional weirdo Johnny Depp and is set in a strange dream-like world. Perhaps this may be the Western to convince me of the value of the genre.

Dead Man features Depp as William Blake, a man who travels to the mining town of Machine to work as an accountant. When he arrives, he finds that John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), the owner of the metalworks, has handed the job to someone else, leaving Blake to wander the town. This leads to a run-in with an attractive woman named Thel (Mili Avital) and her ex-boyfriend, Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne), both of whom end up dead while Blake is wounded. Upon waking, Blake finds himself accompanied by a native called Nobody (Gary Farmer) and finds himself hunted for the deaths, leaving the two to wander the wild frontier.

Dead Man is what happens when Westerns get pretentious. It has all the typical elements of your normal Western, from wandering the frontier while searching and/or being pursued, to gruesome shootouts, all the way to a native spirit guide and grizzled town figureheads. But it’s also shot in highly saturated black and white, heavily quotes poetry (he’s not called William Blake by accident) and features a soundtrack composed by Neil Young sitting in a room watching the movie and noodling around on his guitar.

As a result, there are times when Dead Man can feel tiresome and almost draining. Everything is shot in a deliberately “arty” way, to make it seem like it’s trying to say something important. The only problem is, it’s pretty much saying nothing at all.

I honestly don’t know what message Jarmusch was trying to convey with this movie. It follows the conventions of Westerns too closely to be any kind of deconstruction of the genre, the poetry connection doesn’t really make sense and there’s no real message to be found in the ultimate futility of much of the movie’s events. My initial feeling was that the entire movie was a metaphor for death (which would fit the title), but it’s hard to make that stick consistently.

Instead, the movie ultimately feels like an idea Jarmusch had while watching Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and listening to 70s blues rock, possibly while high out of his mind. Even Roger Ebert said he didn’t understand what the film was trying to say, and if he didn’t get it, how do you expect a self-professed amateur such as me to grasp the hidden message?

Speaking of 70s blues rock and being high out of your mind, Neil Young’s soundtrack does not help in the slightest. I know I often find myself commenting on soundtracks only when they’re really bad, but this is a new low. It sounds like a one-take deal made by jamming out in front of the recently-edited movie which, to be fair, it was. More often than not, characters will be wandering about doing nothing in particular of note when suddenly, a loud CLANG of an electric guitar will come in for no reason other than Neil Young felt like contributing something.

The only saving graces this movie has are the fine acting across the board, especially from Depp at the centre of it all (to be fair, the movie was made when he actually could be bothered to do his job), and the sight of Iggy Pop wearing a Bo Peep dress, playing a transvestite because of reasons.

Dead Man is what happens when you try too hard to be clever in deconstructing a genre and making something even more incomprehensible than the genre you’re deconstructing. Come back, John Wayne, I forgive everything!

Starring Johnny Depp & Gary Farmer
Written by Jim Jarmusch
Produced by Demetra J. McBride
Music by Neil Young
Cinematography by Robby Muller
Edited by Jay Rabinowitz

Favourite Scene: Iggy Pop in a Bo Peep dress will never not be entertaining.
Scene That Bugged Me: The ending got very muddled very quickly.

Watch it if: You really like Johnny Depp and/or Westerns
Avoid it if: You can’t stand Neil Young’s music

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Posted on December 17, 2013, in 1990s, Action, Fantasy, Western and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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