In the world of entertainment, timing can be crucial to success. If Jim Jarmusch had written and directed Dead Man during the silent film era, it might have become a classic. This film’s dramatic black-and-white photography, riveting close-ups of Johnny Depp, and old fashioned fade-outs definitely seem better suited to an earlier age of moviemaking.
Today’s audiences expect colorful cinematography, speedy plot development, and sophisticated editing, even in so-called "art" films. Unfortunately, Dead Man lacks any such modern appeal. Granted, this Western grapples with the universal themes of facing one’s death and meeting one’s destiny. It also gives us a main character, William Blake (Depp) we care about. But it dwells too long on various parts of Blake’s journey, such as his almost endless last walk to the river.
In Dead Man, Blake, a Cleveland accountant, accepts a job in a Western town called Machine. Upon arriving at his destination, he discovers the job has been filled. After being shot by the boss’ son, Blake kills him, goes on the run, and meets an eccentric American Indian called Nobody (Gary Farmer). Mistaking Blake for the English poet of the same name, Nobody helps him elude the assorted gunmen, rangers, and bounty hunters hired by Blake’s boss (Robert Mitchum).
Having attended school in England, Nobody has learned the mystical poetry of William Blake, quotes it frequently, and gradually becomes a kind of late 1800s Dr. Kervorkian. Farmer’s enigmatic portrayal of Blake’s strange friend and helpful guide adds a touch of whimsy to this otherwise deadly serious film.
Always up to the challenge of playing offbeat characters (like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Don Juan DeMarco), Depp weaves his special film magic here again. Blake must change from a mild-mannered accountant to a wanted killer, and Depp gets all this just right, making excellent use of his penetrating eyes to show the depths of his transformation.
While watching Dead Man, I became painfully aware of how important music can be to movie storytelling. In this case, Neil Young’s annoying background music detracts from the film in much the same way Tangerine Dream’s constant electronic hammering did in Thief (starring James Caan).
Dead Man ranks as an unusual creative effort from writer/director Jarmusch (Mystery Train). But it’s certainly not for everyone. I recommend it only for avid fans of Jarmusch and Depp.
(Released by Miramax and rated "R" for moments of strong violence, a graphic sex scene, and some language.)