Sweetness and sourness are at war within Jim Jarmusch’s films. At their best, they’re transcendent and at their worst they’re self-congratulatory, walled off from the audience, and smugly resigned. This duality is embodied by Jarmusch’s most recent fictional films: Only Lovers Left Alive, a paean to checking out of the grand social experiment, and Paterson, a wrenching and surpassingly moving ode to the creative state and everything that nurtures it. Jarmusch’s 1995 western Dead Man is both sweet and sour, and is a pivotal work in the evolution of his alternately mournful and smart-assed poetry.
Dead Man concerns an accountant, William Blake (Johnny Depp), who’s relentlessly harassed and betrayed in the American West of the 1870s. At the film’s start, he’s on his way to report to a remote town called Machine and work for an industrialist, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum). On a train, William shows a boiler man (Crispin Glover) his letter of employment, which the man greets with weariness, speaking in cryptic phrases that foretell William’s fate. This scene abounds in Jarmusch’s prodigious gift for cultural cross-association. Imagine if Kafka had written the opening of a Dracula film and spiked it with parts of Stranger than Paradise and Unforgiven, and you have an idea of the sequence’s tense and exhilarating sense of artistic overload.
As in many other Jarmusch films, one never knows what they’re going to encounter in Dead Man at any given moment, as it has the quality of a politically charged sketch series as staged with the medieval visual majesty of a film by Ingmar Bergman or Akira Kurosawa. Menace comingles with romance, horror, and hipster flakiness, which is characteristic of Jarmusch’s work prior to Dead Man, though the director more fully embraces genre conventions in this film, utilizing their luridness as a thrumming backbeat for satire and non sequitur. A scene, for instance, in which a man gnaws on a human arm bone is funny and apocalyptically frightening. Jarmusch’s films dramatize the collisions between his interests in music, art, literature, and film with narratives that arise free-associatively from these preoccupations. And so violent and macabre elements are useful in shaking up the homages and grounding the symbolism in a sense of emotional chaos.
Dead Man is Jarmusch’s response to the casual imperialism of the western genre, which he rhymes with the Industrial Revolution. Machine is a wasteland of factories, bars, and mud full of manure. As played by an uproarious Mitchum, Dickinson is a macho sociopath who embodies the bridge between past land grabbers and present corporate tyrants. William’s willingness to sell himself to Dickinson, and his misplaced hopes as to what such a sale might mean for his life, give him the tragically common stature of anyone who ever wondered if they have frittered their life away on a meaningless job just because they were told to. This resonance is enriched by the name William Blake, a poet and painter who belonged to the Romantic era, which was in part a response to the Industrial Revolution. Blake’s art is often concerned with ecstatic release and submission, and so Jarmusch symbolically shackles him, offering him up as a martyr for our own modern sense of despair and imprisonment. Jarmusch and Depp’s William is a man divorced of his heritage, and ironically re-connected with it via the assistance of another outsider, a Native American man who calls himself Nobody (Gary Farmer).
These associations aren’t explicitly underscored, though they enrich the film’s central furies: over an Earth that’s being destroyed by industrial pillaging, and over America’s legacy of genocide. Dickinson rewrites history because he can afford to, casting William as a murderer and offering money for his head. Under Nobody’s tutelage, William evolves from a meek worker bee into a glamorous wastrel—a rock-star phantom who’s in sync with Depp’s bad-boy image at the time. At a pivotal juncture, William adopts the “poetry” of the gun, becoming the sort of invincible killer that’s been celebrated without irony by countless westerns and action films, offing a slew of marshals and religious hypocrites while a band of renegades track him and gradually succumb to their own racial and cultural tensions. This poetry is a perversion, a deranged rechanneling of the same outlets that might’ve served Blake’s art.
Dead Man is the best of an informal trilogy that includes Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Only Lovers Left Alive, as all three concern sensitive artist types who embrace violence as a means of coexisting within a society they’ve written off. Though Jarmusch occasionally overplays his hand in Dead Man—Nobody calls William a “stupid fucking white man” perhaps 10 times too many—there are moments of ineffable, rapturous delicacy. Early in the film, William meets Thel (Mili Avital), a former prostitute who gives him a paper flower. She says that she hopes to one day sell the flowers, as the lonely William looks into her face and then her breasts, his avid eyes seemingly imprisoned behind the glasses he’ll eventually shed. Later, before William happens upon three killers played by Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, and Iggy Pop, Jarmusch lingers for a long time on these men in repose, as they jabber with an oddly endearing mixture of violence and kindness. Most hauntingly, William comes upon a slain fawn, laying alongside it in a pose worthy of Blake himself.
Consciously at odds with Dead Man’s poignancy is the obstinacy that’s also familiar to Jarmusch’s work, as the filmmaker ensures that the audience feels the length of William’s journey, linking it to an ordinary tedious road trip. Jarmusch deflates, somewhat, the irresistibly pompous mythos that’s inherent to even “revisionist” westerns. In the train, Jarmusch repeatedly alternates between various shots of William and the underside of the vehicle, with fades to black that slow the sequence down further until it attains a pregnant absurd quality in the key of Beckett. Neil Young’s thrashing guitar score often seems at odds with cinematographer Robby Müller’s black-and-white images, undercutting whatever pastoral quality might have leaked into the cinematography inadvertently via the rugged and surreal vitality of the landscapes. The film’s violence is startling and disgusting rather than gratifying, brutally disrupting Jarmusch’s comic sonatas. Dead Man eats its own tail at every turn, leaving shards of beauty in its wake, as William detaches from a world that squanders him and enters a dream realm that might allow his subjective state to finally and totally bloom.
The transfer is healthy and startlingly dynamic and well-detailed. The monochrome blacks and whites of the image are razor-sharp and intermingle with prismatic subtlety. Compositional clarity is stunning without undermining a ghostly haziness that’s pivotal to the film’s emotional power. Check out the interiors of Dickinson’s factory, which are simultaneously informed with the cleanness of modern photography and the evocative vagueness of daguerreotypes. Facial textures and minute grace notes are also ecstatically vivid, such as the paper flowers that glow with the translucency of orbs or the close-ups of animals either dead or resting. The two-channel soundtrack particularly emphasizes the immersive violence of the film’s soundscape, lending the gunshots a percussive bass that wasn’t evident in prior transfers of the film. Neil Young’s score also resounds with a newfound metallic vitality.
For Dead Man, Criterion offers an unusually poetic supplements package that honors the film without explicating it to death. In a 50-minute Q&A featurette, Jim Jarmusch answers emails with a wry gentleness that’s surprisingly moving. The filmmaker discusses his feelings on westerns, his experience with Miramax, the difficulties in shooting Dead Man, and the impressively broad spectrum of his interests and influences. The interview with actor Gary Farmer covers his background as a Canadian Indian and his involvement with Dead Man, including the camaraderie that he struck up with Jarmusch and Johnny Depp, who at one point wanted him to play Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Farmer is reflective and a little melancholy when pondering his difficulty in getting other quality roles. The new readings of William Blake poems, by Iggy Pop, Mili Avital, and Alfred Molina, is a particularly inspired flourish, and Pop’s version of Proverbs of Hell is especially glorious. There’s also footage of Neil Young recording his score for Dead Man, which was captured live after he watched the film twice—and this piece should be of notable interest for Young acolytes. Even the deleted scenes are distinctive, featuring a murder sequence that occurs off screen in the final cut of the film. Prolonged, absurd, and violently galvanizing, it’s so intense that it might’ve thrown the entire narrative out of whack (though it may have been worth the risk). Meanwhile, a select-scene audio commentary by production designer Bob Ziembicki and sound mixer Drew Kunin offers production details of remarkable specificity, such as how actors who’re uncomfortable with horses tend to blame the animals’ misbehavior on the presence of boom mikes. The theatrical trailer, a color photo gallery, and a booklet with essays by film critic Amy Taubin and music journalist Ben Ratliff round out a superb package.
One of Jim Jarmusch’s best and most divisive films has been outfitted with a beautiful and imaginative Criterion package.