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Sunday, October 02, 2011

Underrated Movie #134: Dead Man


Title: Dead Man
Year: 1995
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writers: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henrickson, John Hurt, Robert Mitchum
The Story: A heartbroken Cleveland accountant named William Blake is lured out west by a false job offer in the town of Machine. While there, he accidentally kills the son of the town’s megalomaniacal boss (Robert Mitchum) who sends out killers after him. He falls under the protection of an Eastern-educated nation-less Indian who mistakes him for the English poet of the same name.
How it Came to be Underrated: I always found Jarmusch’s movies fun but overrated, until this one came along, which I thought was criminally underrated. Depp wasn’t big enough to open a movie yet, mainstream viewers found it too strange (and lacking in color) and Jarmusch’s hip urbanite fans were put off by this detour into Peckinpah territory.
Why It’s Great:
  1. This isn’t so much a Western as a Northwestern. The North(east), the South(east), and the (south)West all loom large in America’s mythology and imagination. But the Northwest lags behind, though it’s not for lack of majesty and iconic power, as this movie proves. It follows in the proud footsteps of that other great Northwestern, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
  2. Depp was capable of great work right from his very beginning, but too often in the early days he came across as too precious and/or precocious (Benny and Joon, et al). In the right hands, he can do great things with that manic style (Ed Wood, Pirates of the Caribbean), but he can be equally powerful in quieter, more intense roles (such as this and Donnie Brasco)
  3. It’s no accident that the networks have suddenly ordered no fewer than seven Western pilots for the next TV season. Viewers love Westerns for the unlimited horizons, but writers love them for the opposite reason: nowhere was life more precarious and the options for survival so limited. The Robert Mitchums have returned to power, ripping down most of the progress this country made in the 20th century and dragging us back to the hard-scrabble, no security, day-to-day struggles of the 19th century. America is looking to understand our scary new reality.
  4. For the first draft of the score, Jarmusch had Neil Young simply watch the movie and noodle around on a heavy-reverb electric guitar to score it in real time. This sounds like a terrible idea, but Young has a way of breaking rules and getting away with it. The result is at times snarling and raw, at other times mournful and elegiac. (And it helps that Young did build on those initial results, rescoring it in the studio in a more traditional way.)
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The always entertaining Gary Farmer has, inevitably, played a lot a spirit-guides to white guys, but he’s also gotten some more diverse roles in all-Indian productions such as Smoke Signals and Skins.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and available to watch instantly, where, I’m pleased to report, Robby Muller’s stunning cinematography comes through with remarkable clarity.


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