Monday, August 22, 2011

Dead Man

    "You William Blake?"
    "Yes, I am. D'you know my poetry?"

Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man is a wonderful film about an accountant, played by Johnny Depp, who, after traveling cross country only to realize the job promised him is no longer there, embarks on a strange, meandering trek through the Old West with an outcast Native American, along the way murdering several people and discovering his spirit.

The films takes the best parts of the Western genre--the gun fights, the rugged freedom of the open wild--and adds into the mix a gothic, almost impressionistic style somewhat similar to Tim Burton's early films, or David Lynch's Eraserhead. One wouldn't think that a Western film would be well-suited by a gothic temperament, but Jarmusch makes it work impeccably.

The first technique Jarmusch uses to blend these genres is the photography. It's shot in shadowy black and white, and is at times even reminiscent of a 1930s horror flick, e.g. Dracula. But, that aesthetic is kept in balance with the beautiful landscapes of the Old West, and all the classic iconography of that time period--trains, six-shooters, saloons--and this balance allows both genres to shine through.

Also the music is excellent in supplying the mixed feel to the movie. Imagine a theme song reminiscent of Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name" films, but infused with an industrial-rock guitar riff and Native American-style drums. This type of soundtrack is again in keeping with both styles, and, much like Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the music crescendos and absolutely captivates as the film reaches its climax.
This mixing of these two distinct styles brings a strange mood to the film. The gothic aspects of it bring somewhat of a sarcastic feel to the slow and subdued nature of the Western genre. The more "badass" moments of the film, like the quote given at the opening of this review, which Johnny Depp delivers before shooting two U.S. Marshals, are highlighted and stand out even more when they're delivered in contrast to the gothic palate. Both genres bring a new feel to the other, and they work together in a beautifully symbiotic relationship that's a lot of fun to watch.

Johnny Depp delivers a very good performance in the role of William Blake. Through the first fifteen minutes of the film I was afraid that I would be dealing with another spineless wimp like the one I dissected in my review of Brazil. But William Blake, from the instance of shooting Charlie Dickinson without hesitation, shows hints of an impetuousness, and a willingness to shoot back at his would-be assassins, that makes him a dynamic character. This is shown through the changes in Depp's wardrobe over the course of the film. He starts out in his "goddamn clown suit," as his perspective boss calls it, then he loses his jacket, giving him the look of a more rugged outlaw, then later he dons a majestic fur coat as he begins to come to terms with his spirituality, his connection with nature, and his fate.

The film is called "Dead Man," and Nobody, Blake's Indian side-kick, often speaks to Blake as if he were dead. So the question is: Is William Blake really dead. I'd say the answer is yes, but in the philosophical and spiritual sense. William Blake, to me, represents man's departure from a connection with Mother Earth, to which every other character in the film still doubtlessly clings. Blake is a quiet, unassuming accountant from Cleveland, but once he returns to the wild, he's drawn back into the world of Cowboys and Indians, of hunter and game, of cops and outlaws, of a respect for and a communion with all Nature has to offer. This is shown by everyone's asking of Blake if he has any tobacco, a symbol of Nature's attempt to help man connect with her, to which he constantly replies, "I don't smoke." As Nobody returns Blake to the realm of the spirits, he places an amount of tobacco in the canoe with him as he sends him off to where his spirit belongs.

A wonderful film full of beautiful photography and a wonderful cast, with supporting players from John Hurt to Robert Mitchum to Billy Bob Thornton to Iggy Pop to Lance Henriksen to Crispin Glover, Dead Man is a film not to be missed.

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