Three Reasons to Watch: Dead Man
Every Monday, Curzon or a guest editor recommends a key film from the Curzon Home Cinema collection. This week, it's Jim Jarmusch’s wildly revisionist take on the Western.
Watching the first ten minutes of Jim Jarmusch's stunning Dead Man (1995) will have you hoping that you never visit a place like Machine. It's the destination of William Blake (Johnny Depp, rarely better than he is here), who hopes to take up the position of accountant in a metal works that's spewing out fumes over the godforsaken town. Imagine Deadwood during the industrial age and populated by people who make Al Swearingen (Ian McShane's character in the acclaimed HBO TV series) appear positively angelic. This is a world of ruthless capitalists and exploited workers, where an alleyway finds a lowlife getting head and bars where recent arrivals are duped. Blake soon finds himself up to his neck in trouble and barely escapes the town with his life, only to be pursued by a collection of bounty hunters and killers.
Jarmusch's film is a Western. But don't be put off if you've never liked the genre. This is a Western like you've never seen. From the opening scenes on a train, as Blake sits opposite a variety of passengers – whom cinematographer Robby Müller shoots like the old Civil War-era photographs of Matthew Brady – Jarmusch's film overturns conventions. There are no good guys. And the bad characters run the gamut from petty to sadistically cruel. It's less a tale of vengeance or retribution that the journey of one man towards his ultimate destiny.
And it's no coincidence that the protagonist is named after the English poet and painter, whose fascination with heaven and hell is given a novel spin here. The fiery hell is an industrialised town. Heaven might be the wilderness. And these two worlds are presented in lustrous, often breathtakingly beautiful, monochrome.
Accompanying Blake on his journey is Gary Farmer's Nobody, a First Nation outcast whose tribe renamed him Exaybachay (He Who Talks Loud, Says Nothing). Believing Blake to be the real English man of letters, he helps him evade his pursuers and leads him deeper into a strange land, himself looking for some kind of epiphany – a path that will lead him to his own enlightenment.
Like his earlier Down by Law (1986), and Mystery Train (1989), Dead Man is also a road movie. Or, as close to a road movie as the director has ever gotten. As with his vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), his new zombie comedy-horror The Dead Don't Die (2019) and brilliant cross-pollination of the Mafia gangster and Japanese Samurai genres with Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999), Jarmusch takes staple elements of a given genre and turns them inside out. But rarely has someone so completely re-imagined the American Frontier of the late 19th century as Jarmusch does here. That the film is also funny and, in its closing moments, tender, is a testament to the vision of this brilliant director and his uniformly excellent cast.
Three reasons to watch Dead Man
· Neil Young's brilliant soundtrack. Rarely using more than an electric guitar and a variety of peddles, it's the antithesis of Ry Cooder's plaintive score for Paris Texas (1984). Young's chords reflect the churning of a railway engine and violence of Machine. It adds to the brutality of the film's violence and the primal nature of this world. But it also transforms as the narrative progresses, embracing the elegiac as William Blake journeys closer to death.
· Robby Müller's imagery. This is the cinematographer who shot Wings of Desire (1987) and knows as much about the atmospheric qualities of black and white as any of the great camera operators from Hollywood's golden age in the 1930s and 40s. But even his previous work pales against the sheer beauty that he achieves – including the violence – with this film.
· Robert Mitchum. In his final role, the Hollywood icon plays John Dickinson, the gun-totting owner of the metal works in Machine. Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Lance Henrickson, Iggy Pop and Michael Wincott are all superb in the film. But in just one scene Mitchum shows why his star shone for so long.
Nominated for the prestigious Palme d'Or in 1995, Dead Man by American auteur Jim Jarmusch (The Dead Don't Die) tells the story of a young man's journey, both physically and spiritually, into very unfamiliar terrain.
William Blake travels to the extreme western frontiers of America sometime in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Lost and badly wounded, he encounters a very odd, outcast Native American named 'Nobody', who believes Blake is actually the dead English poet of the same name. The story, with Nobody's help, leads Williams Blake through situations that are in turn comical and violent. Contrary to his nature, circumstances transform Blake into a hunted outlaw, a killer, and a man whose physical existence is slowly slipping away.
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is available to watch now on Curzon Home Cinema