Some people might pigeonhole the films of Jim Jarmusch based on only a faint understanding of his work. Perhaps intuited from some abstract idea of his films, one might be tempted to assign him to the same twee, affected or fantastical realm as a Wes Anderson or even a Tim Burton. But Jarmusch’s career has comprised a wide range of genre and style and wildly ambitious attempts at reinventing both. His most ambitious, a monochrome psychedelic Western shot to resemble the earliest films of the 20th Century, is one of the most remarkable films of the 1990s.
Dead Man is laudable for many reasons, not the least of which is its being of the few instances of casting Johnny Depp correctly outside of a pirate movie. As the frail carpetbagger William Blake, he is the perfect foil for Jarmusch’s vivid recreation of the 19th Century. Depp, despite his pseudo-boho leanings, looks decisively modern, and next to a cast that includes such ancient and timeless faces as Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, and Iggy Pop, he sticks out like a sore thumb. Walking the frontier streets of Machine, Depp’s foppish Blake looks just as different from his surroundings as the actor looks from Michael Wincott or Lance Henrikson, and it contributes to his sense of alienation and to the transformation that comes later. Having one of the only hard jawlines in the cast, while his castmates look like they were carved from salvaged wood or stone, Depp looks as delicate and fragile as the paper flowers scattered from Thel’s (Mili Avital) basket into the damp muck of Machine.
One of the more impressive features of Dead Man is its representation of indigenous peoples. Considered at the time to be one of the more well-researched films regarding indigenous tribes and their experiences with Western expansionism and colonialism, it features an incredibly moving performance by Gary Farmer as Nobody, a man from two worlds, rejected by both. Never bending to tokenism, Farmer’s character serves as a guide for Blake between the terrestrial world and the spirit world beyond, and he’s a reminder that Western frontier ideology leveled a heavy price on the indigenous peoples who were run into near extinction. Conversations in the film that are spoken in Cree and Blackfoot are left with no subtitles, highlighting the divide and alienation between the white settlers and the indigenous peoples they displace.
Of course, the look of the film is what evokes the 19th and early 20th centuries the most. Shooting in monochrome and costuming to the period can do a lot to effectively time travel, yet Jarmusch and cinematographer Robby Müller manage to blend the washed out, ethereal over-exposure of period films with the endless, boundless wilderness of the photographs of Ansel Adams. When the peyote-tripping Nobody looks into Blake’s face and sees a skull swimming in the ether, the visual effect is lo-fi and absolutely stunning. The effect brings to mind the haunting superimposition effects in Victor Sjöström’s 1921 ghost story The Phantom Carriage, whose double exposures still impress today.
In night scenes, with Depp and Farmer huddled around a campfire, Müller lets the campfire do the lighting, throwing shadows on the actor’s faces and allowing the forest around them to bleed into darkness just outside the firepit. The bullet hits and blood packs in the films gunfight scenes are similarly minimalist, uncomplicated, and incredibly unsettling. Simple choices and rudimentary post-production effects like this anchor the film’s premise as a stylistic homage to the early 20th century, but they also have the added bonus of being really damn cool to look at.
The myriad references and readings of William Blake’s poetry help to ground the film in the hypnotic, psychedelic world of works like Auguries of Innocence, but what ties all of the lysergic scenery and imagery together is the soundtrack, written and performed semi-live by Neil Young. His chiming acoustic and jagged electric guitars seem to drift in on a radio signal from a different era, and he uses soundtrack elements as well as non-diegetic musical cues to accent scenes, twanging on his Les Paul as Henrickson shoots down the mouthy Johnny “The Kid” Pickett (Eugene Byrd). As a choice, getting a rock star to score your film can be hit and miss and always raises eyebrows before the final product is seen. But Young’s anachronistic score weaves in and out of the film like a cast member, as important as any of the elements that make this one of Jarmusch’s best works.
Making films that look as if they’re from another era is nothing new. Dead Man, however, bears the distinction of being one of the few that actively tricks your imagination into believing it to be a lost classic of the early talkies. Even Depp, with his mid-’90s heroin-chic litheness and Tiger Beat pin-up face, begins to slowly blend into the faded black and white landscape of Machine and the frontier wilderness beyond. Carried by a massive cast with some of the best surprise cameo performances of the ’90s, Jarmusch’s cosmic Western belongs in the canon of great films of the genre, in a category all its own.