On the run after murdering a man, accountant William Blake encounters a strange North American man named Nobody who prepares him for his journey into the spiritual world.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover | See full cast & crew
Dead Man is the story of a young man's journey, both physically and spiritually, into very unfamiliar terrain. William Blake travels to the extreme western frontiers of America sometime in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Lost and badly wounded, he encounters a very odd, outcast Native American, named "Nobody", who believes Blake is actually the dead English poet of the same name. The story, with Nobody's help, leads William Blake through situations that are in turn comical and violent. Contrary to his nature, circumstances transform Blake into a hunted outlaw, a killer, and a man whose physical existence is slowly slipping away. Thrown into a world that is cruel and chaotic, his eyes are opened to the fragility that defines the realm of the living. It is as though he passes through the surface of a mirror, and emerges into a previously-unknown world that exists on the other side.
Heading towards a metalworks factory at the edge of the known universe, a pristine, young accountant named William Blake steps into the ungodly, mechanical hell that is the town of Machine. And so begins this man's descent into purgatory...in the wrong place, at a point where time itself is nonexistent.
Blake arrives in Machine after a demented, tireless train ride through what may be his own self. Spanning the beauty of epic horizons and dense forests, yet ending in the bleak misery of the barren desert, we meet this out-of-place traveler in a tiring, strange situation. His frailty is evident: alone, without a living heir, struggling to make his way amidst the freaks and grim destination that awaits. As expected, the town itself begs no welcome, as the malevolent rumors prove true, and leave Blake face to face with the dusty spines of inexorable destiny. In more ways than one, the Wild West awaits...
From this point on, Blake embarks on his surrealistic journey into nothingness, as he becomes a marked man running from nearly everyone and everything. Trusting in a Native friend (appropriately named `Nobody'), the descent into Blake's rejection is juxtaposed with the realities of a truly inescapable destiny. As such, the notions of ill fate and bad luck are separately defined alongside each other. Soon enough, however, Blake learns to cope with the road to ruin, and from his relationship with Nobody, he begins to transform into the gunslinging poet he never was.
In these aspects - the premise, the cinematic device, and the endless attention to narrative and metaphoric detail - the film is simply brilliant. Watching Johnny Depp's character transformation amidst Jim Jarmusch's artistic direction of both beauty and brutality is simply exceptional, despite any problems the film may contain. A feeling of purgatorial confinement is truly achieved as humor is mixed with suspense, and uneasiness blends with inevitability. This is definitely one of the few movies that strangely seizes the disposition, toying with it until sufficiently queasy.
Nevertheless, while the story, acting, and cinematic composition of the film are excellent, certain directorial choices do prevent it from achieving perfection. The primary problem concerns the dreamlike quality interspersed through several drawn-out fades: while effective, they are overused, and only serve to impair the flow of the film and it's intended message. Another problem is the tempo of the action: the characters, while quick to quip and raise their weapons, engage in gunfights at the speed of snails. When a shot is fired, the attacker simply stands in place, only to be killed by the target he missed. This particular criticism can lend itself to the film as a whole, as well. In other words, had the entire pace of the film been quickened, perhaps Jarmusch's voyage into the depths of doom and despair may have been more effective. Lastly, as in many independent films, superfluous `art film' shots and indie flavor over-season the picture simply to separate it from big-studio Hollywood...though as the film progresses, these moments become less apparent.
Overall, this film is one to be seen by anyone who enjoys a creative story with TONS of review value. Several notable faces make their way through the screen (Gabriel Bryne, Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, Iggy Pop, and more), and the dirty, electric twang of Neil Young's guitar fills the gaps with a dark, mechanical, Southwestern gloom.
Enter the town of Machine, and you'll be processed as well. Just watch out for snags along the trail - they make the journey a bit annoying, and certainly longer than what is warranted by the reaches of the attention span...or simply the principles of artistic efficiency.