Directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Mili Avital, Iggy Pop, Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Gibby Haynes, Robert Mitchum, Alfred Molina. (1996, R, 113 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 24, 1996
Jarmusch's first full-length feature since 1991's Night on Earth is a marked departure from the director's previous outings. For one thing, it's a Western, which is hardly the milieu fans would have suspected for Jarmusch's next film. For another, Dead Man's story is far darker than, say, Mystery Train (or any of the director's other films, for that matter). There's still plenty of the trademark Jarmusch deadpan irony, and laconism to spare, but from its casting right down to its cinematography, this is clearly a turning point for the director. To where he's turning, though, is anyone's guess. Depp is William Blake, a quiet, reserved accountant from Cleveland on his way -- by rail -- to the frontier town of Machine, where he's been hired as the head number-cruncher at the Dickenson Metalworks. Once there, however, he finds his job has already been filled, and, having spent his life savings on the trip, Blake finds himself stranded in the godforsaken town without so much as a bed to sleep in. Temporary relief comes in the form of Thel Russel, a paper-rose peddler who invites him up to her apartment to spend the night. Come morning, however, Thel's fiancé Charlie Dickenson (son of the metalworks owner), bursts in and kills her, wounding Blake, who clumsily fires back, killing the man in self-defense. Fleeing the scene of the crime, he steals a horse (belonging to the senior Dickenson, natch) and heads out of town, into the wilderness. There he is rescued by a lone Native American with the intriguing name of Nobody. Both are outcasts from their respective cultures, and the bond between the two men grows, though Blake is puzzled by Nobody's insistence that his new friend is the great English poet and artist of the same name. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Dickenson hires a trio of bounty hunters to seek out and kill Blake. And so on. While Jarmusch's story this time out certainly doesn't lack in the plotting department, his sluggish pacing tends to bog down the film with long, tedious stretches of “so what?” Jarmusch has never been accused of whipcord editing, but the spiritual and metaphorical underpinnings of his story (having to do with the advent of the “machine” age and the damage that ensues) are disserviced by his methodical pacing; there's simply too much time given to the audience to mull over what's being presented onscreen. Depp is fine as the muddled Blake, but it's Thornton (who wrote and starred in the modern noir classic One False Move) and Henriksen, as the two most prominent bounty hunters, who steal the show. Thornton, especially, is the kind of actor who could turn Warhol's Sleep into a mesmerizing tour de force, and Henriksen's craggy good looks and gravelly whisky inflections (when he speaks, which, sadly, isn't much) are perfect for the role. Beautifully shot in high contrast black-and-white, Dead Man fails not because of any one particular flaw, but instead stumbles, caught in a quagmire of metaphysical constructs and Western lore. It's not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, just one that grabs your attention and then lets it go, time and time again.