Dead Man (1995)

The Western, the Great American Western, like baseball, apple pie, roadside diners and that unwritten novel we’re all waiting for encapsulate America to the rest of the world. Jim Jarmusch’s deconstruction of it, dismantling of it, mocking of it and eventually reverential nature toward it is both sacriligious and revalationary. Jarmusch, that photo fit of American independant cinema, takes on the founding father of genres, kicks it about a bit and then disappears up his own backside for a while before emerging with a fresh take and a bright outlook on that most stereotypical of scenarios. Fashioning a Man With No Name from nothing, Jarmusch takes us on a supernatural journey through American and Native American folklore that, like Altman’s McCabe,  has a distinctive voice in that most crowded of arenas.

Depp plays William Blake from Cleveland, travelling to the very edge of the frontier to work as an accountant in a factory in Machine. Finding his position already filled and being chased out by the factory owner (Robert Mitchum, in his last film roll. Jarmusch has EVERYONE’s number it seems.), Blake finds himself stranded, very much at the end of the line, with no money, no job and certainly no skills to help him in this new, harsh world. Somehow, things get worse, Blake is shot by, and then shoots and kills the factory owner’s son. Blake flees, collapses from hs injuries and is rescued by Nobody (Gary Farmer), an outcast Native American who proclaims him a “dead man” and the re-incarnation of the poet, William Blake. Nobody vows to help Blake return to his ancestral home in England. The factory owner, however, lets loose three vicious killers on Blake’s tail.

Blake and Nobody’s journey toward the sea is fraught with danger, from cross dressing trappers (Hi Iggy Pop) to a cannibalistic bounty hunter (Lance Henrikson). Blake dispatches them with varying degrees of luck and skill, gradually filling out the “Dead Man” roll assigned to him By Nobody. These vignettes mirror traditional scenes from countless westerns but forced through Jarmusch’s thick-framed glasses they take on a new, poetic form aided by a suitably eclectic soundtrack.

Neil Young’s grunting, spitting electric guitar score, played directly to the screen in most cases, jarr’s menancingly alongside the action, adding an unusual, lilting darkness to proceedings. The washed out black and white palette conjurs images of silent pictures as does the way many characters move and overly express themselves with grand gestures and wide open faces, none more so than Blake, who, in his funny checked suit and waddling walk certainly resembles Chaplain at the start.

In many ways Jarmusch has created a kind of anti-western, an evolutionary throwback of a western, where myth and folklore are entwined with the violent birth of America. A comedy that turns mysterious, a childlike picture full of extreme violence and imagery. A film full of contradictions, sideshows, wrong turns and ambiguity that adds up to a haunting vision of the transformation of man into murderer and the lasting scars that leaves on America.

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