11 October 2014

Jarmusch Collection Blu-ray Review - Dead Man(1995)

Comedy, Drama
Soda Pictures
BD Release Date:
6th October 2014 (UK)
Rating: 18
Jim Jarmusch
Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Robert Mitchum, Gabriel Byrne, John Hurt, Crispin Glover, Lance Henrikson, Billy Bob Thornton,
Buy:Jim Jarmusch Box Set [Blu-ray]

Dead Man is now considered by many Jim Jarmusch’s magnum opus. It initially received mixed to positive reviews (like many truly great films) including an awful review by esteemed critic Roger Ebert, but over the years, it’s been revaluated and there is now even a BFI book on the film. The noted music writer Griel Marcus wrote an impassioned defence of the film after some negative reviews in the US press.

Jarmusch was interested in making a western but wanted to completely blow away many of the conventions of the classic western. He is a fan of westerns but has been critical of John Ford’s depictions of Native Americans, which is completely understandable. He took influence from the westerns from Monte Hellman, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Sam Peckinpah, Samuel Fuller among many others. Jarmusch himself has called it a “psychedelic western” and it certainly derives from the tradition of the mystification of westerns by “hippie” filmmakers in the 60s and 70s.

During the time he was writing what would eventually become Dead Man he was also re-reading the work of Poet William Blake. He knew from the outset he wanted it to include a Native American character and he’s said that there are many parallels between Blake’s work and Native American mythology. Jarmusch also came up with the idea of naming the main character William Blake (Johnny Depp) who is mistaken as the poet by the Native American character Nobody (Gary Farmer) but Blake himself isn’t aware of the poet who shares his name.

William Blake arrives in the town Machine after he is sent telling him he has an accountant job for the local metal works owner John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum). However, the position is already filled and is driven out by Dickinson at gunpoint. He meets an ex-prostitute and spends the night with her but her ex-boyfriend Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) shows up and shoots him, but Blake is able to shoot and kill him before he can. He goes on the run with his wounds and eventually meets Nobody who becomes his guide to the next life. Charlie turns out to be Dickinson’s son and he sends a bunch of bounty hunters to get Blake back dead or arrive.

The performances in the film are top notch; this was in the days when Johnny Depp was the finest actor of his generation and not the years of those Pirate films, and Gary Farmer is also wonderfully cast as Nobody. The rest of the cast is filled with great actors including Robert Mitchum in his last ever screen performance, John Hurt, Crispin Glover, Lance Henrikson, Billy Bob Thornton, Gabriel Byrne and Alfred Molina. It also wouldn’t be a Jarmusch film without a few musicians in the cast including Iggy Pop in a dress and the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes with a blink-and-you-will-miss-him cameo.

The phenomenal Robby Müller is, again, responsible for the beautiful dreamlike cinematography. It would sadly end up being his penultimate collaboration with Jarmusch who stopped working with him after Ghost Dog and hasn’t shot a film in over 10 years. It ranks up there with some of his finest work such as the many films he did with Wim Wenders and the film Repo Man.

It’s very fitting that Soda’s Jim Jarmusch boxset concludes with his finest film. It’s his most surreal and dreamlike and really shows how much a true artist Jarmusch really is. The film also features a brilliant atmospheric improvisational score by Neil Young, which he performed while watching the film. It’s a score that could easily become indulgent but it suits the film’s feel perfectly; it’s one of the best melding of film image and music ever captured. It’s not too dissimilar from how Miles Davis did the score to Elevator to the Gallows which had a similar effect.

Ian Schultz

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