Occasionally plain odd.
Getting right away from Billy the Kid, who has occupied us for almost as long as he irritated Governor Lew Wallace, I want to talk about a Western that I saw again recently on DVD and which I believe to be truly great. It’s an odd Western, very unusual, but in positive ways that, for me, put it up there in the top ten ever.
It’s Dead Man.
A lot has been written about it but I thought I’d have my ten cents’ worth. .
What kind of Western is it?
Call this an alternative Western, a rock Western, a psychedelic or acid Western, call it what you want. It’s still a fine, fine film. I saw it on its debut in Florence, Italy and was bowled over by its quality, so much so that I sat through it again (without paying for a new ticket; will I burn in hell?)
What does it look like?
It’s in black & white. Director Jim Jarmusch said that it gave a 19th century feel to the movie and that color would have been too realistic for such a mystic tale; it also was a reference to the classic Westerns of the 1940s and 50s. Visually it is very fine. The black & white photography of the Arizona, Oregon and Washington locations by Robby Müller is luminous and stark, very good indeed. In the early stages of the story, when it deals with the vile and symbolically-named town of Machine and white ‘civilization’, it seems to play with German expressionist techniques and camera angles, while when we are in the bosom of nature and in the village of the earth-respecting Makah people, we have a none-too-Steadycam hand-held approach that reminds us of Italian neo-realism. Or is that too pretentious? Or is it just me? Anyway, visually, the film is a treat.
What does it sound like?
It is accompanied by a superb jangly guitar score by Neil Young which I bought on CD but then found that it wasn’t at all the same on its own; it needs the visual. As a film score (it was written for the movie) it is outstanding. It is very hard to write good Western scores. You can go down the stirring Elmer Bernstein route (dum dum de-dum) or the folksy Ry Coodery Long Riders road or take the poetic Leonard Cohen McCabe & Mrs. Miller trail. Probably best are modern orchestral variations on songs of the time, as in, say Escape from Fort Bravo or San Antone. None of them really convince though. A bold decision to use Neil Young rock guitar, however, works.
How good are the actors?
How good are the actors?
The film stars Johnny Depp as William Blake. Depp is an outstanding actor and it is marvelous how he changes from meek clerk into wanted killer, yet retaining his naïvety and innocence. When he is told by his Indian friend that it is time for him to return whence he came, he replies with serio-comic effect, “Do you mean Cleveland?”
Depp, in his low-crowned Tom Petty top hat and stubble, looks like a young Bob Dylan. (Actually two of the characters are named after members of The Heartbreakers). Jarmusch plays with the Hollywood tradition of whites playing Indians in ‘redface’ by having Depp, a quarter Cherokee, play the “stupid fucking white man.” Depp of course became the Indian part of the duo in The Lone Ranger in 2013, when he was Tonto.
Jarmusch also plays with the idea of William Blake the poet and indeed the Indian who befriends the “dead man” takes him for the poet. Blake’s poetry accompanies them on their journey.
The Indian friend is played by Gary Farmer. He is very far from the typical Indian of Westerns. But that is what is so great. He is atypical, an outsider, a person. Mr. Farmer, a Canadian, is a member of the Cayuga nation, part of the Iroquois Confederacy. He also leads a band (not the Heartbreakers but the Troublemakers) and founded a magazine, Aboriginal Voices. The films he has been in are interesting and often unusual. In Dead Man he plays a plump and mystical Blood/Blackfoot half-breed called Nobody, so there is of course the running gag (as old as Odysseus) of “my name is Nobody” in all its permutations. “Who are you traveling with?” “I’m with Nobody", Depp replies. It’s like that 1973 film My Name is Nobody, except not for morons.
Farmer reprised the role in 1999 in Jarmusch’s The Way of the Samurai.
He leads the duo; he is not the sidekick. That’s unusual on its own. Even when we have sympathetic portrayals of Indians, such as Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales, it is still Josey who leads. Dan George is no Tonto but he’s still relegated to second fiddle. In this film it is Depp who follows blindly in his leader’s path and survives (as long as he does anyway for he is a dead man, remember) only because of him. Their journey is not only a physical one; Nobody accompanies the ‘dead man’ on a spiritual journey too. And indeed, only the Indians have any spiritual quality at all. All the white men are brutal, nature-hating polluters who create monstrous towns like Machine. Their world is one vast machine.
The support acting is excellent, notably Robert Mitchum in one of his last roles as the boss of the metal works in the hellish town of Machine who commissions killers to find and murder the slayer of his son; the paid assassins themselves, Lance Henriksen as the cannibal Cole Wilson (in earlier Westerns the Indians would have been the cannibals), Michael Wincott as the garrulous Conway Twill and Eugene Byrd as the psychopathic juvenile Johnny ‘The Kid’ Pickett; and Gabriel Byrne as the shot son of the factory owner is touchingly good in his short part.
Then we have Alfred Molina as the vile missionary store keeper; Iggy Pop (in a dress) and Billy Bob Thornton as the gay would-be rapists of Depp; even John Hurt is good, for once. Very high-class characterization – Mr. Jarmusch wrote it too.
What is unusual about it?
The movie fades out often, to black, and this adds a dream-like quality to it as Blake fades in and out of consciousness, especially towards the end at the Makah village in Washington. The Indians appear outlandish, exotic, like Eskimos or Hawaiians. Much of the film is without dialogue as Depp looks curiously at the weirdness to the sound of Young’s electric and acoustic guitars. We see odd snapshots as Blake does, a stranded sewing machine, a horse pissing, the head of a dead marshal in the equally dead fire, the sticks like the halo on an icon. The two marshals, by the way, are called Lee and Marvin. Why should not Mr. Jarmusch be allowed his jokes? The film is in fact often quite comic, in a dark way.
There is another interesting idea, that of the mirror. The film is symmetrical in many ways: early on Depp walks down the muddy main street of Machine; it is filthy and full of vice and violence. Men point pistols at him and would fire bullets into his body as soon as not. He is alive and they would kill him. Towards the end of the film he walks down another main street, this time the thoroughfare of the Makah village. This too is muddy and untidy but is populated by caring people who help him die with dignity. The Indians, especially Nobody, do not teach him the Indian way of life. They show him the Indian way of death. And such man-made artifacts as here are in this street are beautiful hand-carved totem poles; metal devices like the sewing-machine lie abandoned in the mud. He is dead and they help him 'live'.
Blake and Nobody are also twinned and have much in common. They meet their death at the same time. They are both outcasts and outlaws. They are both pursued by the hired killers.
Jarmusch said the Western is a genre open to metaphor and is constructed around fundamental themes such as punishment, redemption and tragedy. The movie starts with the classic Western metaphor of the railroad and we watch in tiny episodes as the West gets wilder as the train rolls endlessly on. I love that train journey.
There is a leitmotif of the skull. Bones and hides and especially skulls litter the film.
The whole film is in fact an excoriating critique of (white) American society. Wage-slaves toil under capitalist bosses, prostitutes service their clients in broad daylight, men are drunken, aggressive and needlessly violent. Blake asks the girl he is in bed with why she has a gun. “Because this is America,” she replies.
So it's good then?
This is an extremely good Western, unusual, post-revisionist, I’d say, very 1990s, horribly realistic (especially the shootings), occasionally plain odd but incredibly well acted, written and directed and with a great deal to say.
See? You really can say something original and new with a well-worn genre.
If you are Depp, Farmer and Jarmusch anyway.