For someone who is a fan of westerns, both classic (Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine) and modern (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Unforgiven), Dead Man is sort of a strange, off-center anomaly.
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, one of the most renowned auteurs in the 80’s and 90’s, Dead Man is more of a genreless think piece disguised as a purposely cheap Western than anything else.
Yet, those who have seen movies like Down By Law and Stranger than Paradise would expect nothing else from Jarmusch, a man whose films embody a light yet distant style all its own.
This is where a lot of Jarmusch’s divisiveness comes from: is it enough to have style and be cool than it is to tell a story or have a character arc? To some, style can’t substitute substance: ir can only enhance it.
Others have argued for the latter: style can create an enjoyable film all in itself since it can create substance through its different treatment.
This all depends on the director, honestly. Paul Thomas Anderson has done both, with Inherent Vice and Boogie Nights, while Quentin Tarantino is more well known for his style over substance approach.
Dead Man is certainly a style over substance movie, yet it’s hard to argue that it’s style is somewhat mesmerizing in its slow burn sort of way.
The movie has William Blake (Johnny Depp), an accountant moving from Cincinnati to an unknown Western town for a job. He then gets shot and kills a person in self-defense, which lands him being wanted for murder. While escaping, he encounters a native american named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who acts as a sort of spiritual guide while running from hired killers and the law.
It’s a relatively simple story, but Dead Man‘s mood, sense of humor and pace is what makes it an interesting watch.
The honest truth of Dead Man is that the western angle of the film is negligible. This story didn’t really need to be a western. This could have been a more modern tale, but its the style of the film that marries with the setting so well.
The film, in a dark, dingy black and white, is combined with a strange, lighter tone with some bleak subject matter to create a weird mix of dark humor and downstaged theatrics.
The film is a lesson in minimalism. There are very few set-pieces that differentiate in setting, there isn’t a story arc as much as there is a thru-line to purpose and the acting is purposely hammy and dated, in a way.
These strange elements just seem to meld into a movie that is surprisingly solid while really having no ground to stand on.
Few films can actually pull off what Dead Man pulls off, but if you’re looking for a strange type of film, this might be what you are looking for.
The Wiz Says #66