Remedial Film School: Watching Dead Man with Special Guest Drew McWeeny

Remedial Film School: Dead Man

I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Remedial Film School a notable film critic or personality will assign me (and you) one film per month. Drew McWeeny of Hitfix.com is our first guest, and he chose Dead Man, saying it somehow is connected to the Dreamworks animated film Home, which opens March 27.

It’s time to get things started.

McWeeny explains: So why Dead Man?

When I have the entire sum total of every movie Jeff Bayer has not seen to choose from, and I choose Dead Man, it’s a fair question. What makes that movie special? Why should that film be seen by everyone, much less by Bayer specifically?

For one thing, when I bitch in public about feeling let down by Johnny Depp’s choices for the last decade, Dead Man is the best example of why I consider his current work so problematic. Jim Jarmusch’s meditative joke about the death of the American Mythic West is full of tremendously talented actors playing all sorts of roles, and none of that works unless the figure at the center of things can hold it all together. Depp is tremendous as William Blake, a man who feels completely lost and helpless as he wanders this blasted hellscape.

I also think Gary Farmer’s performance in the film as Nobody is essential film acting. If you want to see what a great performance looks like and just how to turn deadpan comedy into scene-stealing gold, study what Farmer does in the film. He looks like he’s doing next to nothing, but you can’t take your eyes off of him. He’s a tremendously talented character actor, and Nobody remains one of his very best roles.

Finally, I think Jarmusch is oddly underrated as a filmmaker overall. Why his entire body of work is anything less than revered by film fans of all ages is a mystery to me. I love that when he steps outside of what we think of as his comfort zone, the results tend to be very different than anyone else’s idea of the genre. There’s never been another Western like Dead Man, but then again, when you get it this right, why would anyone even try?

Do or do not. There is no try.

Bayer watches: I had Dead Man in my house twice, and it sat in my Netflix queue for months on many different occasions. My wife used to love Depp, so it should have happened. But it was black and white, and two hours. Plus, Jim Jarmusch and I haven’t always gotten along (The Limits of Control is painful). It seems like having McWeeny randomly select Dead Man is the movie gods’ way of telling me I wasn’t ready yet. No one told me Dead Man is funny, filled with amazing characters, and Jarmusch could easily be compared to Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers with this film.

When I first saw Depp as William Blake and his costume, I was worried, I had to recalibrate. It’s pre-Depp. This one is capable of being deadpan and subtle (like when he notices a street blowjob), not zany. He nails the portrayal of a nervous man of integrity. Thankfully, I was able to shed my Depp doubt quickly. Then the credits come and I’m simply confused why no one has forced this movie upon me until now.

For such a slow and steady pace, it’s shocking how funny this film can be. Especially because I had an uneasy fear throughout the whole thing. Little moments like a bartender switching bottles to a smaller one are fantastic, but when the supporting cast is playing, the film is at its best. I don’t want to decide if Billy Bob Thornton or Michael Wincott is funnier. Nobody (Gary Farmer) is brilliant and I’m retroactively annoyed he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar over James Woods in Ghosts of Mississippi. We shouldn’t be comparing True Grit (2010) to True Grit (1969), we should compare it to this film.

Sure there are a few things I didn’t need like Nobody’s flashbacks, and the poor special effects when William’s face goes from skeleton and back. Also, at 1:13, William looks up at a tree, then becomes a bad ass killer. While I liked the transformation, and love the line, “Yes I am, do you know my poetry,” I don’t get it. Am I missing something? Plus, if anyone can tell me what Nobody says at the 1:38 mark, that’d be great. My guess (that is wrong), “Vodka.” Also, am I the only one still wondering if the beans were amazing or terrible?

Black and white normally doesn’t enhance a present day film for me (Frances Ha or Nebraska), but it really works well here with this time period. Beyond that, the film honors the passage of time with its proper weight when traveling and healing. The ending leaves me a little cold. William is not crusading, he’s not righting a wrong, he’s just trying to survive. But is the journey simply to save his soul? Also, I needed a final John Dickinson scene (Robert Mitchum). Finally, This might be blasphemy, but Neil Young’s musical score is occasionally invasive, but this adds to the universe telling me to buy a Young album (I don’t have any and don’t want to start with greatest hits). Any suggestions? Also, before I forget, McWeeny, care to shed some light on how this film has anything to do with Home?

Movie Score: 8/10 (and my hunch is it’s very rewatchable)

Well, allow me to retort.

McWeeny responds: Like Home, this is a film in which an enormously unlikely pair find themselves bound for a time while they are on a journey. It’s one of the oldest models there is for storytelling, and these two examples should make it clear just how much room there is to do something original, even if you build your story onto an enormously familiar shape.

And, boy, do I disagree about the Young score, but I get why it wouldn’t work for everyone. Young actually improvised the score while watching the film, and I love it because it feels like someone is just reacting emotionally to whatever’s happening. Even today, I will put this score on while writing, especially if I’m writing about something extra sad.

There can never be enough scenes involving Robert Mitchum’s character in the film. Mitchum in black and white at this age is one of those images you’ll never forget. I feel the same way about Crispin Glover in his scene as the engineer on the train at the opening of the film. His eyes, hyper-vivid against the dark coal dust all over his face, are haunting and haunted in equal measure.

Finally, thank you for getting that this is a comedy. Or at least that it is wildly funny at times. Jarmusch is the king of the deadpan as a director, and I think Depp is far funnier when he’s kept on a very tight leash. He and Farmer are one of the most unlikely pairs in film, and their chemistry is magic. Without these two people, Jarmusch doesn’t get to make this film, and that would have been a damn shame.

When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved.

Bayer concludes: The main issue I have with Young’s score is that it feels like it was actually improvised while watching the film. He’s one of only a handful of individuals who could get away with this. This film has made me believe in the power of Jarmusch. Now I will finally get around to seeing Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and Stranger Than Paradise, though I never plan on revisiting Broken Flowers or The Limits of Control. Does anyone have any other Farmer recommendation, or is this sadly his one great performance? Thank you, McWeeny. This club is off to a great start.

Any questions, answers, deep dive trivia about the film, or suggestions for future films or special guests? Add to the comments below.

Your Next Assignment: Guest critic Amy Nicholson of LA Weekly selected All About Eve. It is available on Netflix Instant, and you can rent it on Amazon Prime and iTunes. Your due date is April 30.

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