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Dead Man

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Dead Man

Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Rated: R
RunTime: 120 Minutes
Release Date: May 1996
Genres: Drama, Western

Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

"It is preferable not to travel with a dead man."

    Hemri Michaux

Jim Jarmusch's (STRANGER THAN PARADISE, DOWN BY LAW, and MYSTERY TRAIN) latest film is his best. The film is entitled DEAD MAN, not to be confused with the completely different DEAD MAN WALKING from last year. Although I have not been a Jarmusch fan before this picture, I am now. DEAD MAN features a great performance by the ever enthralling Johnny Depp (ED WOOD, DON JUAN DEMARCO and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS), impressive and moving black and white cinematography by Robby Mueller (TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA and REPO MAN), and a score by Neil Young so strong that it dominates, but never overpowers the picture. Although the show is quirky enough not to be everyone's cup of tea, I was blown away by it.

DEAD MAN is a mystical journey set in the old West in the later half of the nineteenth century. An accountant with the same name as the great English visionary poet, painter, and inventor William Blake (Johnny Depp) leaves on a train to travel deeper and deeper into the wilderness of the American West. He is going to the end of the line to the filthy town of Mechanic to accept a job offer.

Possibly the best scene is on the train to Mechanic. Blake keeps falling asleep and when he awakens his fellow passengers keep changing, getting scruffier and rougher (thanks to great costumes by Marit Allen), whereas he is wearing a fancy outfit described by others as a clown outfit. He shows his job offer to the train's ethereal fireman (Crispin Glover). The fireman prophetically advises him, "I wouldn't trust no words written on no piece of paper." The coal dust make-up (Neal Martz) on the fireman gives him a realistic but macabre appearance.

When Blake arrives, he finds the owner of the metalworks, John Dickenson (Robert Mitchum) has already given his job to someone else. Office manager John Scholfield (John Hurt) roars in laugher at city slicker Blake and thinks it fitting he lost his job.

Through even more bad luck, Blake hooks up with Thel Russel (Mili Avital). He is in bed with her when Dickenson's son and Thel's long gone fiance, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) shows up. Thel and Charlie both get killed. This sets up the body of the movie, as Dickenson hires the three best gunslingers around, Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), Conway Twill (Michael Wincott), and Johnny Picket (Eugene Byrd), to bring Blake back - dead or alive. Along his spiritual journey, Blake teams up with a rotund Indian whose name means, "He who talks much and says nothing", but who goes by the nickname of Nobody (Gary Farmer). Also along his odyssey, he comes across a group of unusual animal skinners, Big George Drakulious (Billy Bob Thompson), Salvatore Jenko (Iggy Pop), and Benmont Tench (Jarred Harris), two marshals (Jimmie Ray Weeks and Mark Bringelson), and an anti-Christian Christian missionary (Alfred Molina).

The acting in the show is sharp and taut. There are two outstanding performances by Depp and Farmer. Depp can convey more through just expressions than most loquacious actors can with volumes of words. In a film whose strength lies in its bold imagery, the casting of Depp as the lead is brilliant. Farmer plays an assertive, fresh mouthed Indian with a natural gift for humor. Nobody has Blake wrapped around his fingers. I loved Farmer just as much as Depp in the picture.

The script by Jim Jarmusch is smart and biting. When Nobody meets Blake he demands, "What name were you given at birth stupid white man?" When he replies "William Blake", Nobody is in rapture since William Blake is his favorite poet, and he decides this man must be he. Soon Nobody is off reciting his favorite Blake passages, "Some are born to sweet delight; some are born to endless night." When Blake is surprised that Nobody knows they are being followed, Nobody explains, "The evil stench of white man precedes him."

The director's pacing and the relaxed and smooth editing by Jay Rabinowitz make for a dreamy show. Most scenes have dramatic Neil Young electric guitar music, cinematography with sharp black and whites, but with highly gradational grays, and long blank places between words. This is a director who knows the value of a character's silence and how to use it to maximum effect. I do not remember a movie where the music worked better or where it was more central to the success of the film. I am not a Neil Young fan either, but I was mesmerized by his work here.

As the show was drawing to a close, I began to wonder how they would end it. To me the ending is perfect, and it provides a beautiful symmetry to the beginning. When the show was over and the house lights went up, I felt privileged to have seen a incredible piece of cinematic art. Totally unique. To be fair, I later got into a conversation with a local newspaper movie critic who found only the opening scene appealing, but I loved DEAD MAN from beginning to end.

DEAD MAN runs 2:07. It is rated R for some sex, brief nudity, and some very violent scenes like the one where they slice someone's skin and blood spurts out. I think it would be fine for any mature teenager. For some movies like ANNE FRANK REMEMBERED and THE JOY LUCK CLUB, a critic can recommend it knowing that almost everyone will love it, where in other films like DEAD MAN, it is not so clear. Nevertheless I recommend this show to you strongly if you are the last bit adventuresome in your cinematic tastes, and I award it *** 1/2.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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