22 April 2007 | tetractys
An illuminating existential cautionary tale
First of all, you have to be a Jarmusch fan. If you walk comfortably through that door, you'll find he does a bang-up job with this existential Western. So does Johnny Depp, who plays the lead--a lost unemployed accountant in the old west who happens to be named William Blake. Gary Farmer, the Indian from Ghost Dog and The Score, calls himself Nobody because he doesn't like his given name that means "one who talks much and says nothing." Nobody serves as William Blake's savior, doctor, guide and boatman "across the river." Neil Young wrote and performed the score. Blake's nemesis is played by Lance Henriksen as a terse cannibalistic bounty hunter. Delightful cameos include Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, Gabriel Byrne, John Heard and others.
Symbolism abounds--there are shooting stars, down-shots of a hellish factory where Blake wanders looking for a way out, mines and factories of "white-man's metal," plenty of dead animals, including a small doe that Depp lies down with after decorating his face with its blood.
But the movie doesn't fall into the trap of making white men the fall guys for everything wrong with the world in which Blake and Nobody try to make a living. Nobody mistreats Blake's bullet wound and is arguably responsible for his ultimate predicament. Nobody isn't worldly, despite having seen Europe in his youth. He believes the same white people were in every town he visited. The northwest tribe visited at the end were petty people who obviously thought Blake and Nobody were not worth their attention, evidenced by Nobody's imprecations to "walk proud" to the mortally-wounded Blake, and his nervousness at what might happen if he didn't. And of course, there is Nobody's innocent belief that the hapless accountant is the historical poet and artist.
Held together with Young's musical score--mixed a tad loud for my taste--and the deterioration of the finances and health of William Blake, Dead Man is more than a picaresque, but the overall theme is elusive. Motifs are another story, and are liberally sprinkled throughout. Perhaps that's the point, ultimately--in the face of death, nothing else matters, and all the symbols and themes add up to nothing, driving the story from existential to nihilistic. Personal friendship, religion, wealth, work, technology, tribe, humanity, God, love--all mean nothing or are actively detrimental. For a movie named "Dead Man," that's not an unreasonable interpretation.
Depp is an ideal actor to portray the reluctant gunslinger, and his personality does more to hold the film together than any other single factor. The camera loves him, and his ability to portray a variety of responses to his predicaments, from confusion, surprise and anger to amusement, disappointment and ultimately resignation is the heart of this thoroughly enjoyable film.