“Dead Man” resembles a pokey stroll through the Old West rather than an exciting ride. Jim Jarmusch’s first period outing possesses a piquant humor and eccentric mood that brand it with the mark of one of America’s most distinctive indie filmmakers, but pic’s unassertiveness and considerable overlength won’t help to reverse the downward drift of the director’s domestic B.O. fortunes.
Like his previous efforts, Jarmusch’s sidelong take on Western conventions relies upon quirky tone, hipsterish performances and a highly refined visual style to put it over. “Dead Man” has all of this, but its dawdling pace, often arbitrary and overdrawn scenes, and relatively obscure and unilluminating mystical-poetic elements give it a diffused impact that, at best, will pleasantly divert viewers responsive to his idiosyncratic sensibility. At worst, audiences will become impatient and bored with the slow-burn storytelling style.
Like many Westerns before it, notably Robert Benton’s debut feature “Bad Company” among relatively contemporary pictures, this one charts the progression from “civilized” values to outlawry in the course of a picaresque journey involving many odd, colorful characters. The almost inadvertent transformation of Johnny Depp’s William Blake from a mild-mannered Ohio accountant to a notorious gunman not only provides the film with its dramatic arc but also supplies one of its most effectively expressed themes, having to do with circumstances being able to completely transform a man’s life from what he intended it to be, of fate having something very different in store than he could have possibly imagined.
This happens when Blake finds that the job for which he has traveled from Cleveland to the remote frontier has been filled by the time he gets there. Opening episode serves to tip off the pace of the film as a whole: Through 10 minutes’ worth of blackouts, Blake trains west, with the scenery and nature of the other passengers changing perceptibly over time. Those who enjoy this extended wallow in nuance should stay in synch with the rest of the picture; viewers who become antsy during it will surely become increasingly annoyed later on.
In short order, Blake runs afoul of ornery factory boss John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in a relatively colorless cameo), then kills for the first time when Dickinson’s son (Gabriel Byrne) shoots his woman upon finding her in bed with Blake, forcing the latter to retaliate.
Thus marks the end of Blake’s life as a law-abiding citizen and the beginning of his career as an outlaw with a price on his head. Three bounty hunters, led by sadistic man-in-black Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), are only the first of many who try to track down the fugitive, who takes to the hills and sees his identity transformed in the course of a journey that moves from an industrial town called Machine to the outer reaches of native mysticism and spirituality.
His chaperone and guide on good bits of this trip is a one-of-a-kind Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer), who speaks Ph.D.-candidate English, takes mind-altering drugs and is well acquainted with the poet William Blake, whose identity he imposes upon his new friend.
Narrative progress, such as it is, consists of curious conversations between these two men, occasional confrontations between Blake and various gunmen (including two marshals named Lee and Marvin) that only add to Blake’s murderous mystique, and the latter’s solitary progress across a landscape of death until he is ready to “cross over” into the next world.
For those prepared to look beyond the film’s resplendent black-and-white surfaces and scant story, various meanings suggest themselves. As a study of man’s regression from educated values to primitivism, pic can be seen as a disguised take on the modern world. Spaced-out senseof pacing, allusions to Blake, alternate levels of existence and perception-bending substances also suggest drug-related insights that might be meaningful to some.
Guiding spirit behind the film proves quite agreeably meditative and mellow without ever going very deep, and Jarmusch intriguingly alternates between scenes of lovely gentleness and abrupt violence. Backgrounds tend to be lush, dense forests rather than stark, arid landscapes, although the tenuousness of life is suggested not only through the sudden killings but the appearance of a fire-scorched hillside or Blake’s cuddling with the lonely carcass of a baby deer.
With most scenes marked more by mood and curious incident rather than their narrative value, it could be argued that many scenes could be dispensed with to no ill effect. It is also possible that, with 30-40 minutes cut, a really good, tight, comic film might be found within this amiably rambling work that would genuinely please a fair range of audiences. Whether or not the adamantly independent Jarmusch would consent to try such radical surgery is another matter , but it would definitely improve his film’s commercial chances.
As he has before, Depp makes for an eminently watchable, if essentially reactive, hero. Farmer, who was so effective in “Powwow Highway” some years back , walks away with the acting honors here as the mysteriously educated, shaman-like voyager who shadows Blake’s personal journey. Henriksen is the model of a vicious Western killer.
Some of the other thesps, unfortunately, are so heavily hidden behind hair and furry costumes as to be virtually unrecognizable, such as Michael Wincott as a bounty hunter and Iggy Pop as a frontier cross-dresser. Still others are onscreen so briefly as to not make any special use of their talents, including Mitchum, Byrne, John Hurt, Alfred Molina and Crispin Glover.
Distinctively shot in black-and-white by Robby Muller on diverse locations in Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and California, “Dead Man” looks and sounds like no other Western in memory. Neil Young’s solo guitar score leans much more on wailing punctuation of dramatic moments than on any strongly developed musical themes, and the editing relies on Jarmusch’s trademark fadeouts. But the film’s pleasures are simply too elusive and mild to make up for a lack of narrative propulsion.