An existential western/drama directed by Jim Jarmusch and released in 1995, Dead Man introduces us to a young man named William Blake (Johnny Depp) who is travelling from his native Cleveland cross-country to take on a new job as an accountant at a steel mill in a small western town named Machine. Blake ignores the strange and wholly ominous warning delivered to him by the train's fireman (Crispin Glover). Upon his arrival, he's told by the manager, John Scholfield (John Hurt), that the position is no longer his. Before he can do much about it, the man who was to be his employer, mill owner John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), grabs his shotgun and makes sure he leaves without causing any more of a fuss.
Given that Blake's parents recently passed away, he doesn't really have anyone else to turn to or anywhere to go. He takes comfort with a kindly prostitute named Thel (Mili Avital). While in her room her jaded lover, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), storms in on them and shoots her dead, hitting and injuring Blake as well. Blake defends himself, shoots Charlie dead in return, and jumps out the window to make his escape. As luck would have it, the man Blake just shot happened to be John Dickinson's son, and now the surly mill owner has hired a posse to track him down and kill him after he gets the Hell out of town. Injured, Blake wakes up the next morning in the woods where an Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) is treating his wound. Nobody speaks perfect English as he was educated in England, and he knows who Blake is: the famous poet with whom he is personally obsessed. Or at least he believes him to be. Dickinson's hired guns are made up of three men: Conway Twill (Michael Wincott), Johnny "The Kid" Pickett (Eugene Byrd) and a psychopath named Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen). As they continue to give chase, Blake and Nobody do what they can to avoid them, encountering a selection of strange characters along the way, all of which leads up to Blake coming face to face with his inevitable destiny.
Jarmusch's first period piece, shot entirely in stark black and white by Robby Müller, is a striking looking film. Machine is made up to be a Hell of sorts, and Dickinson's steel mill its black heart. There's a lot of odd industrial imagery here, from the belching black smoke that the train emits on the first part of Blake's journey through the grey, barren landscape to the metal works itself. Once things head away from Machine and Blake teams up with Nobody to take what is essentially a spiritual journey together, the visuals stay striking but eventually lose the mechanical tone. The cinematography does a great job of capturing the scope of the journey, some impressive wide angel shots anchoring the film in the more traditional westerns it pulled at least some of its inspiration from, with the more unusual compositions adding to the film's at times almost surrealist tone. The fact that all of this is set to a fantastic, if unorthodox (and sometimes improvised), score by Neil Young doesn't hurt things either.
And then, of course, there's the cast. Before Johnny Depp went completely mainstream, he made a few interesting pictures, and this is one of the most interesting of all. Here, as Blake, he's fantastic. He's understandably and believably confused by all that is happening to him and he makes a very good catalyst of sorts for what happens throughout the film. He and Gary Farmer have fantastic chemistry together, they really do make a great pair. Farmer himself is just as good as Depp in the film. Supporting work from Robert Mitchum (in his last film appearance) is also great, and both John Hurt and Crispin Glover are equally strong in their roles. It's also a kick to see Iggy Pop show up here playing a demented man of the cloth, as well as small but noteworthy appearances from The Butthole Surfers' frontman Gibby Haynes and a young Billy Bob Thonton. Gabriel Byrne is intense in his small but important scene while Mili Avital is a bit of a heartbreaker in her part.
As to the story itself, this is clearly not a film for all tastes and one that seems to have just as many detractors as it does fans. It's easy to see why this is, the movie plays with genre expectations and doesn't always deliver what you expect, let alone what you might want. It leaves a lot open to interpretation, dealing in imagery and metaphor rather than more concrete concepts. It plays with the plight of the American Indian as much as it does with existential themes of life, death and the meaning of it all. How much it actually speaks to all of this will, of course, depend on how much you want to think about what Jarmusch is putting up there on the screen but William Blake (the poet, not the Depp character) is all over it so some familiarity with that might help you get more out of it. Still, even for those not taken with Blake's poetry, there's a lot to take in here and just as much to appreciate… even if it might not all ‘click' upon a first viewing.The Blu-ray
Dead Man arrives on a 50GB Blu-ray disc framed at 1.85.1 widescreen and presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition taken from a new director approved transfer from a 4k scan of the original negative. The picture quality here is, in a word, fantastic. The black and white image shows perfect contrast with black levels that are basically reference quality. The lighter whites and greys are reproduced beautifully and while a natural and filmic amount of grain is present over the entire thing, there's virtually no print damage to note whatsoever. The image is very clean and it shows excellent detail in pretty much every frame, not just close ups but wide-angle shots as well. There's no evidence of any noise reduction, edge enhancement or compression problems. This is a very impressive transfer.Sound:
The English language DTS-HD 2.0 track sounds great. Neil Young's score in particular really benefits from the lossless treatment here, it's very detailed and succinct. Dialogue is clear from start to finish and the track is free of any noise, hiss or distortion. Sounds effects have decent punch behind them as well, gun shots being the most obvious example. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.Extras:
A commentary track with production designer Bob Ziembicki and sound mixer Drew Kunin kick off the beefy supplemental package for this disc. It's an interesting track, when they're engaged (there are frequent and sometimes lengthy gaps of silence here) with the two discussing their respective work on the picture in quite a bit of detail and also talking about with Jim Jarmusch, their thoughts not just on the story that the film tells but on how it tells it, the visuals, the sets, the score and a fair bit more. A moderator might have helped to keep this one a bit more active than it is but there's still a lot of interesting information in here and plenty of behind the scenes insight into the production process that gave us the film.
Up next, we're treated to a really interesting featurette entitled Q&A With Jim that clocks in at forty-eight minutes. Before this disc was authored, Criterion had fans of the film send in questions for the director which he then reads off and answers on mic in this piece (it's an audio recording rather than a video featurette). It's a really fun way to get to know more about the movie and Jarmusch, being who he is, answers with humor and candor. There are a lot of topics here that cover a wide range of the film's past and its history. You've got the choice of listening to the entire piece all at once or using what is essentially a chapter menu to select a specific question (and of course, it's related answer).
From there we get three new video featurettes, the first of which is a twenty-seven-minute interview with actor Gary Farmer. He speaks about his part in the film, his thoughts on the finished product, some of his co-stars and on Jarmuch's talents as a director. In the eight-minute Reading Blakde we get audio clips of Iggy Pop, Alfred Molina and Mili Avital reading some of the man's poems over stills from Dead Man. More substantial is the two part/half-hour long Neil Young section wherein the singer/songwriter is featured in a selection of footage showing him working on the soundtrack in his studio while the film plays out in front of him. It's not of the best quality but for Young fans, it's a treat to see. This section also includes footage of Young performing some selections of his work on the film edited into some clips from the feature. There's also the option to switch audio tracks here and listen to Johnny Depp reading another of Blake's poems over the footage.
The extras on the disc finish up with fifteen-minutes of (fairly rough looking, standard definition) deleted scenes that are interesting to see, a one-minute slideshow of color shots taken during the production of the movie, the film's original theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection. Criterion also includes a color insert booklet containing essays on the film by Amy Taubin and Ben Ratliff alongside cast and crew credits for the feature and credits/technical notes about the Blu-ray presentation. A pretty solid selection of supplements.Final Thoughts:
Dead Man holds up remarkably well, it's an oddball western that is as fascinating as it is entertaining. Performed by fantastic cast and featuring some of the strongest direction of Jarmusch's career, it's absolutely a film worth seeing a few times and there's currently no better way to do that than with Criterion's gorgeous looking, feature stacked presentation. Highly recommended.