Dead Man (1995)
By: Julian on September 10, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Madman (Australia), Region 4, PAL. 1:85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 115 minutes
The Movie
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover, Lance Henrikson, John Hurt, Iggy Pop, Robert Mitchum
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Country: USA
External Links
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Described by its director as a 'psychedelic Western', Jim Jarmusch's daring 1995 effort Dead Man is part arthouse picture, part exploitation film, and while this critically acclaimed collaboration between the eccentric sensibilities of indie king Jarmusch and versatile character actor Johnny Depp doesn't fit within an identifiable niche, it remains one of the most interesting and masterfully filmed movies ever committed to celluloid.

Johnny Depp plays William Blake, a dapper businessman travelling from Cleveland to the frontier town of Machine to take on a position as accountant in a metal works sometime in the late nineteenth century. When he gets to his destination after weeks of travel, he's informed that the position has already been filled. Blake demands to see his would-be employer John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), who, with a cigar hanging from his lips, pulls a double-barrelled shotgun on Blake and snarls, 'get out'.

Shattered, Blake drinks his worries away at a local bar where he meets a girl, Thel, who is an ex-prostitute. He brings her back to his hotel and sleeps with her, after which they're caught by her ex-fiancé, Charlie. There's a bit of Wild West gunplay devoid of all romanticism in a vicious scrabble for weapons - a single shot kills Thel and seriously injures Blake, who returns fire, killing Charlie. Mortally wounded, Blake seeks the help of a travelling Native American, Nobody (Gary Farmer), who believes the bespectacled clerk to be the poet of the same name. Nobody takes Blake back to his camp and the duo soon discover that John Dickinson – Charlie's father – has sent a deadly hit squad to bring his son's killer to justice.

Visually speaking, Dead Man may be one of the most important films in (relatively) mainstream American cinema of the past twenty or thirty years. Jarmusch's decision to shoot in black-and-white purely for aesthetic authenticity (it was far costlier than colour, blowing the film's budget to some $US 9 million) was incredibly audacious, and the cinematography is absolutely superb. There's an epic quality about the picture and Jarmusch's scope is as sweeping as the steam train William Blake boards to Machine, chugging into motion a tragic and equally poignant chain of events.

Jarmusch has cast a number of talented character actors for Dead Man, notably Johnny Depp in the title role – Depp was already an established Hollywood actor in 1995, and starring as Blake was a brave decision in itself. Robert Mitchum's blink-and-you'll-miss-it turn is unforgettable, his imposing stance toting cigar and shotgun one of Dead Man's most iconic set-pieces. Cameo and supporting roles have also been given to Crispin Glover as Blake's beleaguered fellow passenger on the train into Machine and musician Iggy Pop as a cannibalistic hit man. It's all top-shelf stuff, a departure from the Western classics that Jarmusch's genre-bender seeks not to imitate, but transcend – there's no stony-faced, über-tough Wayne or Eastwood-type characters here. Everyone's very mortal.

Dead Man encountered censorship issues in Australia, with the offending scenes (the implied rape in the first ten minutes of the picture) leading to the film's ban upon its initial release. The decision was appealed, and the film was passed with an R18+ classification. At once, Dead Man can be startlingly violent – the Wild West has never been so formidable.

With Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch not only proved his prowess as a film director, but also his bollocks – the film could only be described as a financial bomb, recuperating just over $1 million at the box office, a ninth of its budget. As a genre film, Dead Man is far greater even in moments of mediocrity than when Leone or Jodorowsky were working at their very peaks – it took the arthouse Western thirty years to produce something truly beautiful.
Robby Müeller's exquisite black-and-white cinematography is presented in 1:85:1, with 16:9 enhancement. A very good transfer and Müeller's work here verges dangerously on the perfect.
One English audio track, presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital. It's adequate. Of particular note is the score, and Neil Young's soundtrack has rarely been bettered. Young's acoustic, coupled with acerbic electric guitar staccatos, reaches a deliriously sublime level at its crescendo.
Extra Features
Director's Suite's sole claim to fame is their release of arthouse and foreign pictures that are usually pretty lightweight extra-wise, yet cost an arm and a leg.

Fifteen minutes worth of outtakes and deleted scenes, a three-minute music video from Young, a theatrical trailer and trailers for other Director's Suite releases The Stroll and The Eel are all the justification we're given to fork out in excess of thirty big ones for this disc. Glance over into the shady realms of Region 1 and 2 and, surprisingly, there's little else. A making-of featurette certainly wouldn't go astray supplementing this terrific picture.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Spectacularly shot and acted, this is the sort of acid-trip morality tale that Sergio and Alejandro were dying to tell when Spaghetti Westerns were at their allegorical peak. Visually, this is absolutely stunning and the narrative packs a helluva wallop. The performances are all outstanding, and Depp undoubtedly lent the film much of the success and cult following it achieved on the home video circuit. One of my favourite movies of all time.

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