Every great filmmaker is allowed at least one grand folly. Jim Jarmusch, the poet laureate of sub-zero cool and laid-back absurdism, has channeled his distinctly late 20th-century sensibility into a wide-screen, black-and-white Western titled Dead Man. Why? Because he wanted to. Why should we care? Because even when an artist as important as Jarmusch misfires, he remains worthy of the attention of any serious cineaste.
Thematically and stylistically, Dead Man really isn't all that far removed from such earlier Jarmusch efforts as Down by Law, Mystery Train and Stranger than Paradise. Once again, Jarmusch appears obsessed with the notion that chance events and random encounters can have the most radical effect on total strangers in a mystifyingly strange land. Just as important, these slow, gradually evolving changes are best dramatized, in the world according to Jarmusch, in a series of blackouts that do not advance the plot so much as slowly nudge it forward into the next level of free-floating weirdness.
During the opening minutes of Dead Man, Jarmusch dares to chart the transition from Old East placidity to Wild West eccentricity at what seems like the real-time pace of an actual cross-country train journey. As William Blake, Johnny Depp wears a wide-brimmed hat and affects a guileless manner that suggest the holy fool he portrayed in Benny and Joon. Here, however, he is a button-down accountant, a humorless drone who has set out from Cleveland to claim a job as the accountant at Dickinson Metalworks in the backwater town of Machine. As he gazes through the train window during his trip, he sees the battered remnants of covered wagons and Indian villages. An impartial observer might question whether Blake actually is journeying through some distant circle of hell. A brief conversation with a soot-blanketed engineer (Crispin Glover) only serves to reinforce Blake's mounting apprehension that he is going nowhere slow.
Blake's worst expectations are fulfilled shortly after he arrives in Machine. He is informed by the condescending office manager (John Hurt) at Dickinson Metalworks that the accountant job has already been filled. When Blake insists on expressing his outrage to the company owner, he finds himself at the wrong end of a shotgun wielded by the patrician John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), and beats a hasty retreat.
One thing leads to another, and Blake ends the evening by sharing a bed with Thell (Mili Avital), a lovely ex-prostitute who makes her living by selling paper flowers. Unfortunately, Thell continues to be the object of a unwanted admirer's affection. Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) bursts into her apartment, and fires his gun at her. The bullet passes through Thell, killing her, and lodges in Blake's chest, near his heart. So Blake fires back, instantly killing Charlie. And then Blake's troubles really begin.
Charlie just happens to be the son of John Dickinson. And while the elder Dickinson seems more upset by the loss of his horse -- which Blake stole while making his escape -- he's also pretty peeved about the death of his offspring. So Dickinson hires three of "the finest killers of men and Injuns in this here half of the world," charging them with the task of tracking down Blake and bringing the fugitive back to Machine. "Alive or dead don't matter," Dickinson concedes. "Though I guess dead would be easier."
Meanwhile, Blake runs for his life, riding as fast he can while avoiding the risk of jostling the bullet that is so close to his heart. Eventually, he is befriended by a loquacious Native American, Nobody (Gary Framer), who reveals that he, too, was rudely cut off from his roots. As a child, Nobody was captured by white men, taken East and eventually transported to England as a sideshow attraction. Once he was overseas, he was educated in the classics -- and learned a great deal about the poetry of William Blake. Now, Nobody considers it his sacred duty to look after the great poet's namesake, and to serve as Blake's guide during the latter's long reentry into the spirit world.
The central running gag in Dead Man hinges on Nobody's insistence that the Blake in his care really is the Blake of legend. Referring to the six-gun Blake has held onto almost as an afterthought, Nobody proclaims: "That weapon will be your tongue. You will learn to speak through it, and your poetry will now be written with blood." Well, maybe so. Much later in the film, when Blake is approached by two rifle-toting lawmen, he admits to being William Blake. Then, drawing his gun, he asks: "Are you familiar with my poetry?" The two lawmen are dead before they have the chance to respond.
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Almost everything that happens after Blake rides out of Machine can be interpreted as the fever dream of a dying man. Certainly, there is ample cause to view Blake's journey as some kind of anti-realistic allegory, given the free-floating strangeness of what Blake and the audience go through together. Much of what happens in Dead Man has no resonance beyond grotesquery for its own sake. (A bounty hunter hired to hunt Blake sleeps with a teddy bear; an oddball animal skinner wears pioneer-lady drag and regales his companions with the story of "The Three Bears.") Once it becomes clear, however, that Jarmusch doesn't necessarily expect us to take anything literally -- that, maybe, he's making it all up as he goes along -- Dead Man becomes far less problematic. That is, once you realize that nothing on-screen has to make sense, you can sit back like some half-inebriated passenger aboard a drifting ship and simply marvel at the exotic sights that appear as you pass along the shore.
Of course, you're still left with the nagging suspicion that Jarmusch intends for us to take Dead Man a great deal more seriously than that. But, really, how could you? As the ponderous, graceless story ambles to the lazy rhythms of Neil Young's anachronistic, grinding electric guitar, Dead Man looks, sounds and feels like an inside joke designed for a small circle of friends, many of whom appear on-screen. Now that Jarmusch has gotten this out of his system, let us hope that it's true that one learns more from failure than success.
Dead Man. Directed by Jim Jarmusch. With Johnny Depp, Gary Framer and Robert Mitchum. Rated R. 127 minutes.