Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Film Review: DEAD MAN (1995, Jim Jarmusch)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 121 minutes.
Tag-line: "No one can survive becoming a legend."
Notable Cast or Crew: Johnny Depp (CRY-BABY, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS), Gary Farmer (ADAPATION, GHOST DOG), Crispin Glover (BACK TO THE FUTURE, WILD AT HEART), Lance Henriksen (NEAR DARK, ALIENS, PUMPKINHEAD), Michael Wincott (THE CROW, ROMEO IS BLEEDING), Eugene Byrd (SLEEPERS, THE SUBSTITUTE 2: SCHOOL'S OUT), John Hurt (ALIEN, I CLAUDIUS), Robert Mitchum (CAPE FEAR, OUT OF THE PAST), Iggy Pop (TANK GIRL, ROCK AND RULE), Gabriel Byrne (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, MILLER'S CROSSING), Jared Harris (NATURAL BORN KILLERS, THE WARD), Billy Bob Thornton (ARMAGEDDON, TOMBSTONE), Mili Avital (STARGATE, THE END OF VIOLENCE), Alfred Molina (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, SPECIES).  Music by Neil Young.  Cinematography by Robby Müller (REPO MAN, DANCER IN THE DARK, BODY ROCK, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., and PARIS, TEXAS).
Best One-liner: "That weapon will replace your tongue. You will learn to speak through it. And your poetry will now be written with blood."

Welcome to DEAD MAN, the metaphysically brutal 90s art-acid-Western you didn't know you needed, and quite possibly the enduring masterpiece of indie auteur Jim Jarmusch.
 
You could call it 'the ERASERHEAD of Westerns,' or perhaps 'Franz Kafka-by-way-of John Ford,' or maybe 'an Ansel Adams horror movie.'  It shuns Western nostalgia and renounces Hollywood aesthetics. It's tangibly authentic and usually frightening.  A collage of dirty, vintage Americana set to squealing Neil Young soundscapes.  A movie of dark textures, of grease and grit and gristle, of cesspools and ink wells and open wounds, of smoke and gears and timber and bone.






It goes without saying that cinematographer Robby Müller (REPO MAN, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., BARFLY; PARIS, TEXAS) really outdoes himself here.  And for reference, let me remind you that the Academy Award for cinematography that year went to John Toll, for BRAVEHEART.

Our story follows the accountant William "no, not that William Blake" Blake (Johnny Depp) as he journeys from Cleveland to a job out west in the company town of Machine.
 
In a twist that would feel at home in THE TRIAL or THE CASTLE, there is no job––only an endless stream of bureaucratic contempt, paranoid behavior, and existential menace.

Said stream is initiated by an aggressively weird and soot-covered Crispin Glover:

continued by a surly, greasy John Hurt:

and brought to a crescendo by a latter-career Robert Mitchum who, naturally, continues to not give a damn.

My only question is: who got to keep that painting after the shoot wrapped? I'm only asking, cause there happens to be a Mitchum-painting-sized empty space on my living room wall.

Quite obviously, to anyone with even a vague conception of my interests, I think this is magnificent––and we're only about twenty minutes in.

After Blake is forced by circumstance to become a murderer (of Gabriel Byrne, no less!),

he goes on the lam

with a man named Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native American who came of age after being kidnapped by a "savage circus" traveling show.
 
 Gary Farmer, pictured here doing a Slash impersonation.

The film at this point develops into an episodic, memento mori-style picaresque; an extended meditation on death and dying.  Jim Jarmusch thrives on textural juxtapositions and combinations of actors with different flavors (see also:  MYSTERY TRAIN, NIGHT ON EARTH, COFFEE AND CIGARETTES), and DEAD MAN treats us to several of these bizarre tableaux.  For instance, in one scene, Iggy Pop (wearing a LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE dress),

a molest-y Billy Bob Thornton,

and Jared (son of Richard) Harris share a campfire with Johnny Depp, in turns petting him and being generally terrifying.


Perhaps my favorite element of this scene is that Iggy Pop makes no attempt to conceal his conspicuous Detroit accent.

Elsewhere, we have Hurt, Mitchum, Michael Wincott (THE CROW, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY), Eugene Byrd (SLEEPERS, THE SUBSTITUTE 2), and Lance Henriksen sharing the screen together,


an event that is clearly historic (and possibly on par with this Bill Murray/Robert Mitchum/John Glover shared scene).

I must give special mention to Lance Henriksen, whose résumé already boasts an entire rogue's gallery of frighteningly committed psychos.

He evolves into the film's major antagonist, death-angel of inevitability, a bounty-hunting cannibal of unimaginable cruelty who "fucked his parents," according to the gossip mill.

Perhaps needless to say, Henriksen is scary-good.  He has the look of a boogeyman who wandered beyond the confines of a cursed daguerreotype, and he fully embodies the role.  I'm reminded of the stories of from behind the scenes of NEAR DARK, when the method-acting Henriksen wandered the Southwest for real and picked up hitchhikers, all while in character as a Civil War-era, serial-killing vampire. Yikes! I really hope they had an SFX guy on set for the cannibal scenes...

Lance enjoys some takeout.

Perhaps betraying his Henriksen fandom, Jarmusch inserts a scene where a character says "God damn your soul to the fires of hell!" to which another replies, "He already has," which is a direct line from PUMPKINHEAD.

In connection with Henriksen, I also must make special mention of the film's unique visceral aspects. This isn't quite a gorefest, though there are some exceptionally vivid moments of violence that I remembered with terrible clarity.  That's especially surprising since this was only my second viewing, and my first must have been in 1996 or 1997, shortly after DEAD MAN hit the VHS rental shelves.
 
There is a brutal, dangerous beauty at play here, and the experience lays somewhere between "suffering from fever dreams" and "perusing a haunted taxidermy shop."  Depp, whom I've essentially neglected to mention thus far, brings it all together with a lyrical detachment worthy of his poetic namesake.  Five stars.


P.S.––Note the in-joke of two Johnny Depp-hunting marshals named "Lee" and "Marvin,"
 
a nod to Jarmusch's intense Lee Marvin fandom and notorious secret society, "The Sons of Lee Marvin."



–Sean Gill

5 comments:

Jack Thursby said...

I mistakenly tried to watch this with my dad who is a huge Western fan AND Neil Young fan. Alas he checked out around the 10 minute mark when Blake enters the town and sees a woman being forced to give head to a guy in the alleyway.

Still I love this film. Such a great dream-like atmosphere to the film yet it never gets tedious. If you want another acid Western recommendation - try Blueberry (also released as Renegade) with Vincent Cassel. It's makes a great trippy double bill.

J.D. Lafrance said...

'an Ansel Adams horror movie.'

I love it! The cinematography in this film is breathtaking and yet also doesn't romanticize the West what with all the dirt, grime and blood and soot. Jarmusch is careful to show both sides, the dichotomy that exists within this world. Amazing stuff.

I would also vouch for BLUEBERRY. It's an odd duck of a movie with a trippy sequence that pays homage to the Stargate sequence from 2001 if you can believe that.

Sean Gill said...

Jack,

Heh, that's pretty rough--it sure ain't STAGECOACH! Also, I'd not heard of BLUEBERRY and will put it in the queue forthwith!

J.D.,

Thanks, bud! Definitely a breathtaking, non-romanticized film. I feel like David Milch and Walter Hill were taking notes from it when developing DEADWOOD. And you have also added to my resolve to see BLUEBERRY!

gweeps said...

"Don't let the sun burn a hole in your ass, William Blake!" Loved Gary Farmer in this.

And Henriksen. He's made some other fantastic westerns, especially The Quick & the Dead, which also has a fabulous ensemble cast.

I wish Depp would do more indie movies.

Sean Gill said...

Gweeps,

Yeah, Gary Farmer is great. Plus, I enjoy his "reprisal" of the role in GHOST DOG! Of course I can never say enough about Henriksen. And sadly, I think Depp's last great role was probably in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO.