Jim Jarmusch is as simple a filmmaker as there is working today, and he tends to do his best work from the most schematic material: Stranger Than Paradise‘s rigid three act structure; The Limits of Control‘s teleological vengeance, which is so preordained that it openly mocks the possibility of it not occurring; and Dead Man‘s straight-line journey toward, or from, death. In each case, this geometric girding is used as a frame to hang a sugar-clump narrative structure, where incessantly yammering hipster types are both a distraction from the central arc and necessary to color it in. Dead Man takes this approach to its logical end, while The Limits of Control had to dispense with logic to go farther, by yoking its overt linearity to its historical setting; Jarmusch gets a real sense of filming in the past tense.
A revision of the revisionist western, Dead Man charts the demise of an East Coast accountant named William Blake, who, summoned by a letter assuring his employment, shows up a month late for work in the town of Machine. After avoiding death at the hands of his would-be employer, he falls into bed with a local ex-whore, whose fiancé conveniently arrives to set the story in motion, killing her, leaving Blake with a bullet in his chest and allowing the meager accountant to become a murderer. The next hour and a half concerns, in parallel tracks, Blake’s ramblings with a Native American named Nobody and the gruesome slapstick of the heavies hired to track him down.
If Jarmusch’s sense of hanging out in the Old West plays like a Halloween costume next to the lived-in quality of Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting (the closest points of comparison among post-classical westerns), it also confirms this as an attempt to film history, and underlines a perspective that speaks with as much moral and political intelligence as Hellman’s pissy, bored response to the political ‘60s. Jim Jarmusch looks from 1995 and asks what has changed: The ruthless capitalism that Johnny Depp’s William Blake can only escape through death—portrayed as immense and unknowable, the gray sky and a black ocean—is the same as the one that today results in the burning of England.
Jarmusch gets at this historical questioning through two recurring setups: The first is a long shot where the characters pass from one edge of the frame to the other, talking nonsense the entire time, and the second is a garish point-of-view shot from Blake’s perspective. The former establishes the shambling, present quality of a temporal realism. The latter enters into this realist world and finds it disconcerting, a series of twirling first-person shots that approximates an idea of perspective rather than embodies it. For Jarmusch, this is history, a construction which, when entered, overwhelms and disorients and forces us to resort to creation of mythology.
Depp, whose reputation rests on a confused understanding of acting as the process by which an individual erases himself and leaves only a hollow shell-mask that rattles through the movie making sure that the viewer is perpetually aware of its creation, does the best work of his career as the doomed accountant because his mythic disappearing act fits snugly into the role of a man fading into history. In Public Enemies, Michael Mann used the cinema to inflate Depp into a mock Anna Karina, the only human moments of his career to date. Jarmusch, less concerned with making a real boy out of Depp, allows him to embrace his magician’s desire to escape from his own body and builds a narrative that, for once, is animated by his disintegration rather than overshadowed by it.
The rest of the cast is filled out with actors chosen precisely for their inability to be anything less than present. Robert Mitchum, as the tycoon of Machine, lumbers around and speaks earnestly to a stuffed bear, and exists in an uneasy tension with the rest of the movie; it’s as if he’s a transmission from history itself. Crispin Glover shows up in the opening minutes with a sooty face to tell us that we’re in hell; Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton goof off as ludicrous caricatures in the weakest of the film’s vignettes; and Gary Farmer, playing Nobody as both deeply intelligent and a complete idiot, offers probably the most commendable Native American character in the history of American film.
Jarmusch’s ability to transform knowingly and intentionally goofy material into real intelligence puts him closer in sensibility to Hollywood’s great western directors than any of the other revivalists, who don’t seem to have much awareness that anyone made westerns before Sam Peckinpah. Aided by Robby Müller’s black-and-white photography (his best work after Wender’s Road Trilogy), Jarmusch gets a tense linearity to his images, a sort of languid reimagining of Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher. The revisionist western sought to tell how it really was in order to point toward progress; Jarmusch’s skepticism of progress—the opening sequence collapses Griffith’s parallel montage to create an image of stasis (the crosscutting of a train and its passengers collapses the journey in on itself)—is his real moral truth. We can’t go forward when we’re mired in a situation that leads only to death.
Echo Bridge Entertainment's Blu-ray release is the best that Dead Man has ever looked, which isn't to say that this is an ideal presentation. The image is brighter than on Miramax's previous DVD release and the consistently good detail does justice to Robby Müller's delicate photography, but Echo Bridge has once again cropped a 1.85 release to 1.78 and the frequent night scenes look soft and noisy. Audio is 2.0 DTS-HD MA, and Neil Young's score booms out appropriately; dialogue and ambient sound is clear throughout. This is a fine presentation, and worthy upgrade, but one of the most important American films of the 1990s deserves better.
This release brings over more or less identical extras from the Miramax DVD. Eighteen minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes from the DVD are condensed to 15 minutes here, and once again are presented in shoddy, non-anamorphic standard-definition. None of the deleted material proves particularly enlightening, though the excised death of one character would have been a real blemish had it been included. A pointless clip show set to an excerpt from Young's score is the sole other extra.
An intensely intelligent look at American history and a blueprint for how to (un)make it, from one of our country's finest directors.