Jim Jarmusch is a filmmaker whose work helped to define me as a young cinephile twenty-five years ago. I was a high school kid in the suburbs and getting to an arthouse theater involved driving upwards of an hour to Berkeley or San Francisco at a time when that wasn't so easy. Lucky for me, there was one American auteur whose work was always available at my local video stores, and that was Jarmusch.
I remember being first exposed to his idiosyncratic style by a friend who'd rented Down By Law when we were both about thirteen years old. It was unlike any other film I'd ever seen, certainly strange for a contemporary film. Shot in black and white, frequently odd dialogue and exchanges between its principal cast of Italian superstar Roberto Benigni and jazzmen John Lurie and Tom Waits, Down By Law was a revelation to me. The film was already a few years old by the time I got to it, but it was perfect timing for me because I could now follow Jarmusch when new films arrived. A joy I wasn't often afforded as a lot of my favorites at that age were already dead.
When Dead Man arrived I was underwhelmed at the time. I wasn't a fan of westerns, and my young brain wasn't quite able to parse the story being told and how it related to the world around me. As the years have gone by it has become one of his defining works both because it is so different from the rest of his oeuvre and also because it is of a piece with his worldview.
In Dead Man, Johnny Depp plays accountant William Blake. A man who has left his life in Cleveland behind to take a train out to the wild west town of Machine to accept a job as an accountant there. When that position has been filled before his arrival, he's left to fend for himself. In a moment, his depression turns to joy when he meets a paper flower seller on the street and goes home with her, only to be interrupted by her former flame, sparking an altercation that leaves the estranged lovers dead and Blake a fugitive.
As he runs from certain death, a trio of bounty hunters on his tail, Blake runs into Nobody (Gary Farmer) an existential Native American who believes this accountant to be the reincarnated soul of tortured poet and artist William Blake. The two travel across the wilderness in search of safety and redemption, instead finding danger and temptation at every turn. Varying episodes of their adventure find them communing with nature and each other and fighting for survival when it seems like every turn they take presents a trap.
Filmed in stark, beautiful black and white by the legendary Robby Müller, Dead Man evokes the same style as Jarmusch's Down By Law on a number of counts. The monochrome imagery in each is exceptional, and here helps to define this character's worldview. William Blake at the beginning of the film sees the world as a place of right and wrong, it's only when he steps into Machine that he starts to understand that not everything is as it seems.
Both films also feature unlikely compatriots on the run from those who would punish them. In Down By Law it is the language that forms a barrier between Benigni and his criminal comrades, in Dead Man it is a lifetime of experience that does the job. Though on the surface we assume Blake to be the civilized one based on his clothing and formal demeanor, it is Nobody who has actually traveled the world and been exposed to numerous cultures. Nobody understands the ways of many people and still adheres to his own set of beliefs because it is the one that works for him. Blake is suspicious at first, but as he remains alive under the most dire circumstances, he begins to understand.
There is a part of me that always related to Jarmusch's work, starting around Down By Law and going straight through to Broken Flowers. What I felt was a youthful ennui, a desire to be more than I was but a simultaneous inability to see how that was possible. It led me to look inward, because that felt like the only place I could go to explore, and that's where Jarmusch's work connected with me. His characters were also victims of the same ennui, and while some, like Blake, attempted to make a break for it, they were often cast back into the pit from which they came. A pit from which I have spent a lifetime wrestling free.
Dead Man works on that level for me, even today as I scrape away at a job that pays my bills but often strangles my soul at the same time. I desperately want to break free, to take the leap that William Blake takes, but I fear the same things he fears, only now I have a wife and child to support, so the idea of picking up and running off is a fantasy. I don't fear the death that Blake fears, I fear a different loss, I fear failure, and letting down those who depend on me. All fears that Blake hasn't yet contemplated, but will if he lives long enough. That's the kind of man he is.
I suppose the film attaches itself to me and a certain part of my personal history that allows it to still affect me in a way that Jarmusch's newer films fail. My youthful ennui has been replaced the the resolve of a man with a job to do, a family to protect and raise, and a purpose. Jarmusch's hasn't. He's found his niche, for sure, but when films like Paterson, which feel like the work of my own 15-year-old depressed mind, arrive to great fanfare and critical praise, I can't help wondering what everyone sees.
It feels like Jarmusch is cycling back to those earliest works of atonal droning like Permanent Vacation and Stranger than Paradise, two films which never worked for me. Whereas Dead Man, Down By Law, and the other films that fill the gap between those and Broken Flowers feel like the work of a man determined to grow and exploring his own version of what growth looks like.
Dead Man is a rather star-studded affair, among the first of many such films Jarmusch would make as his star has risen. While Depp as Blake is the obvious leading man, we also get Billy Bob Thornton on his way to the top, Lance Henrikson, Iggy Pop, Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover, Jared Harris, Michael Wincott, and the big daddy Robert Mitchum putting in work. And let's not ever forget Neil Young's impeccable and evocative score. A musical conversation with the onscreen action that is never less than amazing.
It's been a while since I've seen Dead Man. I'm not afraid to admit that it's largely due to my recent disappointment in Jarmusch's work. I wanted the film to hold firm its place in my heart as I remembered it, without being tarnished by my feelings what what Jim Jarmusch has come to represent for me. I'm glad I took the plunge, though, as this film is even better than I remembered it, and remains one of the high points of '90s American cinema, and perhaps American cinema in general.
Dead Man had already received a bargain basement Blu-ray release from Echo Bridge several years ago as they stomped through the Miramax library, but this new Criterion Collection release blows that disc out of the water. The brand new 4K restoration is astonishing, having last seen them film on DVD over a decade ago, it felt like watching a brand new movie. The film is brighter, with better contrast and a filmic texture that'll make you want to reach out and touch the characters on screen. This might be one of the best black and white presentations I've see on Blu-ray ever. Truly exception. Neil Young's score also benefits from the lossless LPCM upgrade, which makes this an exceptional experience.
Criterion has largely created new extras for this disc, including a 45 minute pre-recorded Q & A with Jarmusch sourced from questions from Criterion customers that is the single longest extra. There is also a 25 minute interview with Gary Farmer that is revelatory in terms of charting his career and the experience of making the film. We also get a few deleted scenes, an archival video recording of Neil Young composing and performing the score in his warehouse along with the promotional music video that accompanied the film, and one of my favorite video features was a gallery of color photos from the set showing the attention to detail and vivid, expressive colors that were behind the film. There is also a scene specific audio commentary with the production designer Bob Ziembecki and sound mixer Drew Kunin, along with a selection of Blake poems read by cast members Alfred Molina, Mili Avital, and Iggy Pop accompanied by Jarmusch's location scouting photos.
Thankfully, this release has the old booklet style (with staples) essays rather than the dreaded foldout they've become accustomed to. We are treated to a pair of essays this time, first an overall look at the film, it's themes, and production history by Amy Taubin, along with a specific look at Neil Young's score by Ben Ratliff. Both are worth spending some time on, and definitely make me glad that these boutique labels still spring for paper goodies.
Dead Man remains a towering achievement and subversion of the great American western. The Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray is superb and well worth your money.