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: Movie Review - Dead Man
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May 16th 2010
Human corruption is a theme that fascinates me, so it comes as little surprise that I liked DEAD MAN so much, despite its flaws. A poetically brutal western about a man gradually turned into a monster by the cruel society that he ends up in, this film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch succeeds in getting its point across without succumbing to pretentious writing. Archetypes and symbols are used by him with intelligence, and never become more important than the very interesting characters Jarmusch develops with an unexpected but efficient sense of humor.
William Blake (Johnny Depp) isn't in this case the acclaimed poet, but an accountant on his way to the city of Machine, where he's been promised a job. The film's introduction consists of the train ride to Machine, with Blake growing more and more uncomfortable; as he gets closer to his destination, the scenery outside the window goes from friendly and beautiful to arid and lifeless, and the other passengers, from seemingly reasonable men in hats and suits to rugged, dirty men in pelts who give Blake hostile glares. Some might consider this sequence too long and repetitive, but I found it to be very effective in conveying just how out of place Blake is in that world; wearing a indescribably ridiculous suit, a dull hat and an introverted expression on his clean-shaven face, it quickly becomes clear that Machine is going to eat him alive.
Case in point, Machine turns out to be the end of the world, and on his way to what he hopes will be his workplace, Blake sees a number of unbelievable things and gets threatened with a gun within a minute of leaving the train (in another well-directed and well-paced sequence). Upon finally arriving, Blake is told the job's taken, is threatened with a gun again and ultimately finds himself penniless and stranded in a place he doesn't belong to and that doesn't seem even mildly inclined to accept him.
After something good finally happens to him, Blake's luck goes south again and he is seriously wounded by gunfire (in another exceptionally well-edited scene, it must be said). In possession of a revolver, he escapes and is saved by a half-breed Indian called Nobody (Gary Farmer), who has surprising knowledge of the white man's culture and starts referring to Blake as the famous poet; upon learning Blake's name, Nobody says, "Then you ARE a dead man!". The Indian starts to guide him as though Blake is a lost spirit needing to find his way to the beyond. Blake the accountant, however, is required to do terrible things to survive in the harsh land that surrounds him, and starts to lose his humanity.
Despite the obvious archetype represented by the Indian ("Nobody"), Jarmusch develops him and other characters as unique human beings rather than portrayals of humanity as a whole (which seldom, if ever, works). The Indian has a backstory, and is a very entertaining character who, like Blake, is an outcast in his own way. The name he was given by his old tribe, "He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing", is actually very appropriate, since what makes Nobody so interesting is that most of what he says is bullshit. At the same time, he is the only person who treats Blake well.
The supporting characters are equally interesting, with the highlight being the trio of killers hired to hunt down Blake. Their chemistry is impeccable; Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen) is quiet and concentrated, Conway Twill (Michael Wincott) won't stop fucking talking and Johnny "The Kid" Pickett (Eugene Byrd) is actually a kid who started bounty-hunting very precociously. The scene where Conway tells Cole's backstory to Johnny is absolutely superb and one of the film's funniest moments. One of the main flaws in DEAD MAN is that the character of Cole Wilson, brilliantly played by Henriksen, is badly-used by the script; Jarmusch didn't seem to know how to fit the character in the ending, and does so in a way that mildly works, but not up to the careful build-up of Cole Wilson as a legendary gunslinger and psychotic fuckwit.
Sadly, other flaws plague this film; fortunately, none of them bad enough to overshadow the abundant good bits; sadly, they're still there. The main theme composed by Neil Young is evocative and beautiful, but the rest of the soundtrack is a random plucking of guitar chords to punctuate certain events with as much subtlety as a hammer to the crotch; the middle of the film has a few script problems, namely two characters separating from one another only to be later reunited in a clumsy (but, okay, funny) way, as if the film needed some time to figure out where it wanted to go next; the editing is mostly exceptional, but Jay Rabinowitz does let some shots drag on for far too long, and he overuses fade ins and fade outs, giving the film an episodic structure. However, the latter is forgivable because there is a poetic rhyme to it; every time Blake sleeps or passes out, which is often, you can almost see the relief in his face as he leaves this cruel world for at least a few hours. Not to mention that the fade out that ends the film, thanks also to Jarmusch and his director of photography Robby Müller, is beautiful, ending the film on a perfect note.
Müller, by the way, does a fantastic job with the black and white cinematography. The composition of the shots and the subtlety of the camera movements result in a film that's great to look at, and he and Jarmusch create moments of beautiful symbolism, such as the scene where Blake finds a dead baby deer, and sees himself in it, or, more precisely, the man he used to be.
(continued in comments)
May 16th 2010
Johnny Depp is a very versatile actor, but he always did have a preference for strange characters who don't fit well among other people. Excellent as always, he portrays Blake's change of personality with sensitivity and intelligence. Even in the latter half of the film, we can still see glimpses of the old Blake, as he stares innocently at the wilderness. Meanwhile, his increasingly indifferent reaction to gunning down people is an impressive and sad contrast. Depp, however, never allows his character to turn into a version of Clint Eastwood. William Blake's change can be clearly seen in all its brutality, but is never overdone. Gary Farmer stays true to his character's other name, always talking loud, but never overdoing it either. He's very funny and very likeable. The cast is one of this film's main strengths, with people such as John Hurt and Gabriel Byrne performing great cameos.
Another of the film's strengths is the unexpected sense of humor displayed by Jarmusch; the film has several funny moments which never break the overall bleak tone of the narrative, which is a sign of good writing. Black comedy is especially present, and the dialogue is sharp, especially the lines said by Conway Twill. The fucker might talk a lot, but that turns out to be a good thing (for the viewer, since the characters travelling with Twill aren't blessed with cinematic cuts).
DEAD MAN is the kind of film that, even if I didn't like, I'd at least respect. The director is trying to tell a story in the way he thinks is best, a story that interests him. I'll take that over any tested-for-certain-audiences Hollywood shit any day. But fortunately, DEAD MAN is also a memorable film. It has some flaws, but even they give the film a certain charm. It's a film with something to say about humanity, but that doesn't rely on that alone to be good and therefore avoids being just pretentious. It's about its characters just as much as it's about its message. Beautifully bleak, darkly funny and subtly moving, with the rare kind of ending that made me feel, at the same time, sad and relieved for its damned protagonist.
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