Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Mood: If your S.O. is bugging you about watching more cultured fare and you need something that counts as an art film but is still Western enough that you’re not actually too far outside your comfort zone.
I have a history with the movie Dead Man. Skip ahead to the actual review if you’re in a hurry (which is definitely NOT the right mindset for watching this movie).
I owned the DVD for something like 10 years, but I didn’t watch it. I don’t know why, but the cover looked like you had to be in a certain type of mood that I guess I was never in. I eventually gave it away among other DVDs I was tired of packing up to move, not even knowing it was a Western.
Fast forward to me getting back into Westerns, starting this website, and discovering all of the exciting subgenres. Horror Westerns! Sci-fi Westerns! Meat pie Westerns! I’ve been slowly trying to watch movies from each subgenre, and I saw Dead Man listed under revisionist Westerns.
Boy, did I feel f*cking stupid.
I ordered a copy online, somehow wound up with a German copy that I had to return, gave up, then it turned out my mom had a copy the whole time which I borrowed for this review.
That’s a lot to go through in the pursuit of broadening one’s horizons. I hope you appreciate the f*cking effort. Now let’s get into this movie.
Dead Man is set in the typical time and space of the American West. William Blake (Johnny Depp) is on a train bound for a town called Machine, toting a letter that promises him an accounting job.
Right away, you know you’re watching an art film.
- Artistic cinematography, mostly closeups and long, thoughtful shots of the people
- It’s shot in black and white yet it’s totally unlike watching vintage black and white Westerns – the tones are striking and intentional
- There’s minimal dialogue and hardly any score; the only ‘soundtrack’ is a few occasional strums on a single electric guitar, which Neil Young improvised in a recording studio while watching an early cut of the film
So yeah, this was foreign territory for Depp’s character AND for me. I’m not really into art films, so I was kind of squinting at it, waiting to be annoyed. Or bored.
There’s nothing in the opening scene to give you a hint of what’s to come. Blake’s only interaction is with the train’s fireman (Crispin Glover), and it’s a bizarre sequence that’s all abstract and trippy and reminiscent of Depp’s early scenes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
- Fun Fact: Crispin Glover played Andy Warhol in The Doors, and the last Western I watched was The Desperate Trail starring Frank Whaley, who played Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger in that same movie
Blake shows up at the metalworks, and is mocked by the other workers and chased out of the office with a shotgun by bossman John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum). Alone and penniless, he visits a saloon, goes home with a beautiful woman, and gets shot by her ex. He shoots the shooter, panics, and takes off on a stolen horse.
When Blake wakes up he’s being tended to by a large, friendly Native American named Xebeche aka Nobody (Gary Farmer). Blake has angered the rich and powerful Dickinson, who hires everyone he can to track and kill him. Meanwhile, Nobody was unable to remove the bullet because it’s too close to Blake’s heart, so he is officially a walking dead man.
Dead Man is also sometimes called an acid Western or psychedelic Western, but I think the revisionist category fits best. Revisionist Westerns basically flip the script and show Native Americans in a positive light – and Nobody is 100% the hero of this movie.
Apparently Dead Man is extremely respectful to the Native people it portrays. It’s free from obnoxious stereotypes, and there are several scenes spoken in Cree or Blackfoot with no subtitles, providing exclusive understanding (and in-jokes) to viewers who speak those languages.
Plus, Nobody is played by Farmer, who is actually an Aboriginal Canadian actor of the Cayuga nation.
Nobody is a fantastic character. He’s a fine balance of snarky mouth and poetic soul, and is depicted as the leader – the smart one next to Blake’s constantly befuddled ‘stupid white man’. Nobody also has a rich and heartbreaking backstory. He’s the only likeable character in the entire movie, and Farmer easily delivers warmth, wisdom, and exasperation.
The rest of the cast is a highly unlikely ensemble of extremely talented actors that give you a crazy array of rich, unique characters:
- This is youthful Johnny Depp, who was delighting audiences with quirky characters like Edward Scissorhands, Cry-Baby, Ed Wood, and Gilbert Grape – before he drowned in Jack Sparrow and his characters became walking caricatures of himself
- Crispin Glover excels at doing nothing specifically weird that you can put your finger upon, yet coming across as super f*cking weird, and his presence in that first scene set the tone for the whole movie
- Robert Mitchum is serious AF as Dickinson; that is the rumbling voice that narrated Tombstone, and played Bill Murray’s serious AF boss in Scrooged, and did tons of old Westerns that I obviously need to see
- Lance Henrikson is the perfect Western villain, playing the increasingly sinister Cole Wilson – you fully believe that he will kill anyone for a price (and, in this case, eat them); Henrikson played gunfighter Ace in The Quick and the Dead, which was released the same year as Dead Man, and gun-for-hire Ring Shelton in Appaloosa
- Michael Wincott has, as usual, created this fully realized character in Conway Twill; instead of a smooth-talking gunman (Forsaken) or an effeminate art lover (Basquiat) or villainous swordsman (The Three Musketeers; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) or a scary AF crime boss (The Crow)… he’s a dirty and kind of degenerate chatterbox outlaw
- Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton, John Hurt, and Gabriel Byrne also make brief but memorable appearances
- And then to round it out you have Iggy Pop dragged out in a pioneer woman’s bonnet and dress – you wouldn’t expect to see Iggy Pop in a Western, but then again, he also appeared in director Jarmusch’s wickedly smart zombie flick The Dead Don’t Die (seriously awesome, it’s my favourite movie of 2019!)
Dead Man is highly artistic and intelligent, from the sharp cinematography to the references – and there are a f*cking TON of references that were way over my head.
I’ve never read the poetry of William Blake, I don’t listen to Neil Young, and I don’t even know most of the real people in pop culture whom other characters were named after (other than that the two marshals were named Lee and Marvin, after Western icon Lee Marvin). If you love that kind of stuff and want to do a deeper dive, read this interview with Jarmusch about his vision and purpose with the film.
But the thing is, you don’t have to GET all of that to enjoy this movie. It’s creative and weird and still somehow wholly Western. I had no clue what I was watching from start to finish, but I didn’t want to stop watching.
The outlaws hunting Blake are excellent Western baddies. Blake’s story is more of a vision quest and a man finding himself, but everyone around him is giving you brilliant Western characters and dialogues.
I guess what I’m saying is don’t sleep on this movie. There’s a reason it’s #20 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Movies of the Nineties.