Directed Viewing: Unexpected Reversals and “Dead Man”

Here we are at the latest edition of Directed Viewing, where I take a look at a specific director’s filmography movie by movie. It’s been two weeks since our last article, as I was laid low by illness (and honestly kind of needed the recharge after so many awful movies in a row) but we’re back and what we’ve got today is miles more interesting than anything that’s come before.

As before, we’re still looking through the filmography of Jim Jarmusch, who at this point had established quite a bit of indie cred but had mostly stuck to small, relatively modest films. Deciding to deviate from his then-consistent milieu, what we get today isn’t just a different direction, but in many ways a thematic 180 in terms of what his movies have been about.

Dead Man (1995)

I’ll go on the record as being a big fan of the modern western. Maybe it’s something to do with how rare it is these days, or how much passion for the subject seems to be poured into each film because of that, but it’s really fantastic to see that period represented on film in a modern context. Which is why I so desperately wanted to love Dead Man from its opening moments.

Shot in black and white, Dead Man makes no attempt to be a sweeping, romantic Ford-inspired Western, nor does it reach for the gritty absurdism of Leone and his ilk. It is, like all of Jarmusch’s films, modern in its own eccentric way. This is true both of its presentation–with too-crisp cinematography and fantastically out-of-place electric guitar heavy score–and of the story itself.

Dead Man is about accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp), a nervous man in a ridiculous suit who comes out west from Cleveland for a job prospect. When he gets there, he’s promptly told that the position is filled and that his journey has been for naught. Before long he runs afoul of his would-be employer (Robert Mitchum, in little more than a cameo that still manages to outshine much of the rest of the movie) when he murders the man’s son in self-defense. He takes a prized horse and flees into the wilderness, only to be pursued by hired guns (including a great Lance Henriksen).

Blake, wounded and nearly dead in the wild, comes across a Native American who identifies himself as Nobody (Gary Farmer). Nobody hates white men, and for good reason. He was assaulted and watched his family murdered by them as a child, and then taken to Europe as an example of a ‘tamed savage’. It was there that he learned of the poet William Blake, who he found a great affinity for, and decides that Blake is his namesake’s spiritual reincarnation and decides to help him.

Nobody is easily one of the most nuanced Native American characters I've ever seen in a film.

What follows is a movie that is in many ways, from a purely narrative standpoint, straightforward almost to the point of disappointment. This movie has a reputation as a ‘weird’ western, but in a world where movies like El Topo exist it comes across more as a singular story told with a flair for surrealism that makes it stand out. Not that that’s necessarily bad, but Blake’s journey isn’t necessarily a very complex one.

What it is, however, is subtle and subjective. Nobody takes it upon himself to rebuild Blake as a new man in his native tradition, making him go on a vision quest and turning him from a nebbish bumbler to something of an avenging figure. He’s never going to be The Man With No Name, but as the film progresses he becomes more and more distanced from the man we knew, dressed in furs and wielding a gun, war paint, and a haunted stare. Nobody removes all the modern life from Blake, and in doing so reveals something much more human and far less cartoonish, something primal and immediate.

The problem, if I can go so far as to call it that, is that this is in many ways a complete reversal of Jarmusch’s other films. I’ve complained in this series again and again about Jarmusch’s obsession with the concept of ‘cool’ as expressed by a rock and roll, mid-80s hipster aesthetic, all burnouts and greased hair and aimless existential wastelands. But what Dead Man presents is in many ways a critique on all of that modern pretension, an anti-hero’s journey that strips Blake of possession and propriety and brings him to a place that is dominated by spiritualism and a sense of moral righteousness.

Sometimes things can get a little ... weird.

And that’s certainly a valid thing to do in a movie, to be sure, but coming from this director I can’t help but wonder what caused the change of heart or if one side of the coin is disingenuous. You can’t make half a dozen movies deeply wrapped in a love for something you then go on to say is poisonous trappings of modern life without one of those stances ringing a little false. So I’m left wondering how much of Dead Man is genuine feelings about the death of a tribal tradition and more ancient way of living, and how much it’s just Jarmusch indulging in things he thinks are cool.

That might sound like condemnation, but it really isn’t meant to be. I wonder because Dead Man feels in many ways more heartfelt and intensely personal than any of the other films he’s made. It’s strange and frightening and sometimes funny in a straight-faced way that evokes (for me, anyway) another period movie: O Brother, Where Art Thou? It is similarly happy to mix American myth with literary tradition, and while Dead Man certainly isn’t as masterful a movie as that one it’s mash up of elements creates a similar feeling of irreverent humor for what is in many ways a very serious story.

As far as movie’s go, Dead Man is an odd thing. It’s surprising coming from this director, and it’s a movie that doesn’t do a whole lot of explaining of itself. It’s a lot of mood and subjective interpretation, even wrapped around a plot of fugitives and gunmen and Native American mysticism. For all of those genre trappings, though, it is in many ways not a Western at all. It’s contemplative, internalized, a movie that’s more thoughtful and earnest than I thought Jarmusch had in him.

It’s funny, starting out writing this piece I was pretty sure I disliked the movie for all the reasons I just laid out. It’s not an easy movie to love, made with skill but utterly unwilling to be approachable. But in writing out my thoughts I have a far greater fondness for what’s there than I expected, and I have to begrudgingly admit that despite my problems with the sudden shift in theme and what that might mean in looking at a creator’s full body of work, Dead Man is a hell of a film. I wouldn’t exactly run out and recommend it to everybody, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

( A logistical note: the next entry in this series is due to go up on Thanksgiving. Since I assume most of my audience is American and probably busy on that day, I’m going to take a look at a Jarmusch-directed music documentary for next week. I doubt I’m going to have a lot to say about it, so I’ll probably only post up something comparatively brief. Sorry, I’m as excited as anyone to get to Ghost Dog the week after. )


About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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