Dead Man (1995)

I’ve seen a few odd Jim Jarmusch films before (Stranger Than Paradise, Coffee and Cigarettes and Down by Law, basically) but not yet Ghost Dog or Broken Flowers, the former I await the Criterion release of, the latter simply waiting in the ‘to-be-watched’ pile that continues to grow to ever-increasing quantity.

This one, however, was not of the same general variety as the preceding films; it bore its closest resemblance to Down by Law, and even that association is a thin one. It’s mostly the apparent refining of technique that brings these two closer together than Stranger Than Paradise, and of course Coffee is an oddly constructed film on the whole, and built from years of footage anyway.

Still, what drew me to this one was the description of Lance Henriksen’s character Cole Wilson as an incestuous cannibal–which actually played less a role than I expected, and was a very subdued note in the entire film, as well as the enormous list of actors I take interest in who appear throughout–beginning with Crispin Glover, then rapidly adding John Hurt, Robert Mitchum, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Wincott, Lance himself, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, and of course the star–Johnny Depp as William Blake (no, not that William Blake).

What we have here is an intensely methodical film about an accountant who is accidentally drawn into the role of gunslinger (of sorts) when a chance meeting with a woman leads to a jealous fiancé’s murderous impulse and the defensive reaction of said accountant. From here he is told that he is already dead by amusing and curious Native American “Nobody” (Gary Farmer), who begins to prepare him for a journey to the other side, taking away his glasses and his nervous accountant’s disposition, as well as his absurd plaid suit. Lance, Wincott and Eugene Byrd play the posse sent by Robert Mitchum’s character Dickinson–who denied Blake the accountant’s position he first came to take up–to kill Blake for his impulsive murder.

The pursuers and the pursued do not really cross paths and almost seem to lack any interest in the other’s state or actions, essentially portraying two distinctly separate storylines, that for all they are tied seem wholly unrelated; Blake is continuously taught by Nobody–who mistakes him for, yes, that William Blake–to accept the nature of his condition and the world in general. The various escapades that Blake goes through–including an amusing segment with Billy Bob Thornton and Iggy Pop–are thoroughly episodic, and unrelated, though they all build to the same end of eventual death and understanding thereof.

One of the more striking elements was Neil Young’s highly unusual score–a wailing, wandering electric guitar, filled with reverb and whammy bar, scrabbling and picking around over the entire film with only the barest of chords and progressions, but all adding perfectly to the mood of the film.

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