Rating: R (for moments of strong violence, a graphic sex scene, and some language)
Length: 121 minutes
Release Date: May 10, 1996
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: 4 out of 5
“Dead Man” is one of Jim Jarmusch’s most notable achievements and features perhaps one of Johnny Depp’s most underrated performances. Considered more a period piece that directly draws upon the Western genre, the movie deals with complex issues such as the use of language as a powerful weapon, indigenous culture, American history, and violence. It’s a critically acclaimed movie that has received much praise and recognition over the years.
“Dead Man” follows the journey of mild-mannered accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) who ventures westward and arrives at a bookkeeping company managed by a gun-toting sociopath (Robert Mitchum). Jarmusch had named his main protagonist after the respected poet William Blake who lived in the eighteenth century. The foreigner is met by a harsh and unwelcoming town, and the job he was expecting to get has already been taken. His quest takes an unprecedented turn as he becomes the suspect of an unintentional murder. He scrambles across the wilderness with his life hanging by a thread due to a bullet near his heart. Blake encounters a philosophical Indian called Nobody (Gary Farmer) who sincerely believes that Blake is the renowned poet William Blake. Unfortunately, savage bounty hunters pursue him.
The confusion that arises with Blake not knowing his namesake brings a series of comical scenes. Depp, being the versatile actor he has proven to be through the years, conveys his character’s ignorance very well. Beyond the funny moments that stem from the confusion, the story advances further into something deeper and more harrowing. Instead of freedom and prosperity, Blake gets himself tangled in a world of danger and decay.
“Dead Man” presents a symbolic journey of an innocent man who comes to face a cruel reality that transforms him into a completely different person. It’s a journey to death, both figuratively and literally. After Blake finds out that the bullet wound in his chest is fatal, Nobody tells him that he shall become a killer of white men and that he will write poetry in blood. Various deaths and murders occur throughout the course of the film. Although seemingly brutal, the deaths are accompanied by beautiful aesthetic themes such as cascades of white paper flowers, a fiery halo, and an enchanting meteor streak. These deaths of classic Westerns are remolded as rituals, and Blake becomes the personification of death. Blake draws further away from the white man’s world as he embraces an alternate way of life.
“Dead Man” is a movie whose essence lies in the protagonist’s journey and transformation. Blake’s journey reaches its peak as he attains consciousness and understands that his existence is a transition from innocence to life-changing experience.
The movie is a fascinating and intriguing take on the Western history. It’s often referred to by critics as postmodern Western.In its historical account of Western expansion, the film conveys a subtle yet meaningful subtext that doesn’t come across as didactic. Most critics commend how “Dead Man” explores the role of the American West in history.Its socio-historical discourse makes it an exquisite classic and one of the best movies in the ’90s.It gives viewers a glimpse of Jarmusch’s ingenious directing skill and Depp’s fantastic performance in his early years.
“Dead Man” is stunning, poetic, and meaningful, offering audiences a superb auditory and visual experience. The black-and-white cinematography is reminiscent of a classic film in the older decades, and Jarmusch’s poetic symbolism and unique sense of rhythm are notably exemplified in the film. The sometimes-abrupt transitions to violence in some scenes are sure to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.
In “Dead Man,” Jarmusch’s artistic direction is paired with superb performances and an impressive selection of cameos. Although some roles may feel small, each character effectively leaves an impression, from Alfred Molina’s deceitful missionary to Lance Henriksen’s psycho killer to John Hurt’s cynical secretary.Depp’s portrayal of Blake is spot on. He’s undoubtedly the perfect choice for the role as he convincingly portrays a frail and meek character who gradually transforms into a different man.
“Dead Man” is truly an American masterpiece that will take viewers through a poetic journey of human transformation. It’s a movie well loved by critics and considered one of the best in its genre.