Dead Man (1995) (R)

Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man" is a western unlike any others. It takes the wannabe hipster style of "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and transforms it into a dusty, operatic, and virtually flawless masterwork of the most pretentious and glorious level.
I have huge problems with the movie...that should be out in the open first of all. Jarmusch is not one of my favorite directors and I find that he always over-emphasizes the actions of his characters until they feel unreal. This is no exception with "Dead Man", where the name of the game is "oddity". There are so many outrageous characters that the work begins to feel like a Tim Burton movies...the added presence of Johnny Depp doesn't help that feeling.
Yet before I get into the plot, I think it should be said that the key facet of the movie that works beyond anything else is the music. Neil Young's score with his rock guitar music that blends in and out of distortion is absolute perfection. It makes the movie achieve a level that it couldn't have without of the best scores I've ever heard.
"Dead Man" begins slowly, as William Blake (Johnny Depp) is on a train, traveling to the small city of Machine. He is heckled and sized up by the caricatures on the bus. These are rough men and rougher women. It's assumably sometime before the turn of the 20th century, though no date is given—the frontier is mostly occupied.
This opening train scene which fades in and out as William sleeps his way all the to the end of the line feels like the beginning of a dismally boring movie. Jarmusch's tendency to fade to black is present and in abundance, which made me nervous.
After reaching the town of Machine, William tries to find his new job. He was sent a letter with the promise of an accounting job if he made his way to Machine. After the funeral for both of his parents, William sold everything he had and made his way from Cleveland. Alas, when he gets to the Dickinson Mining Company, the job vacancy has already been filled. Understandably a little miffed, William demands an audience with John Dickinson, the company's head (played by aging star Robert Mitchum). When he gets the chance to talk, he gets a gun pointed at his head and instructions to scram.
Great, now he's stuck in a town where everyone treats him like an outsider.
At a bar, he meets Thel Russell (Mili Avital), a young girl who brings him back to her place. After a night of passion and romance, their room is broken into by Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Bryne), the ex-fiancee. He kills Thel and William kills him, then fleeing the town.
Ah, what a great setup.
William was hit by the bullet that killed Thel and he gets taken care of by an Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) whose English is astonishing. He keeps referring to William Blake as "stupid, f**king white man". This adds to the slight black humor of the movie.
John Dickinson is now irate at the death of his son and possible future daughter-in-law so he hires three mercenaries to track down William and kill him. These three are an odd trio. There's Johnny "The Kid" Pritchett (Eugene Byrd), Conway Twill (Michael Wincott), and Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen) and each is more unpleasant to the next.
Jarmusch's usual trope of sitting back and watching is here for most of the movie, but he does shock you with his violence. As the movie goes on, the acts of degradation increase until it becomes a thriller of the highest caliber.
William and Nobody roam across the country, not realizing that there is bounty on William's head.
Poetic, romantic, and visceral: "Dead Man" is shot in crisp black-and-white. It's wholly original and almost Coen-esque with its quasi-implausible feeling.
The acting here is sensational, though overstated with gaudy cameos (including Iggy Pop playing a transvestite).
As a whole, "Dead Man" is an experience and one that should not be missed. It's Jarmusch's finest hour and one of Depp's best performances.

Score: ★★★★

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