Jim Jarmusch's Old West is no place for John Wayne. Inspired by Native American pantheism, the English mystic poet William Blake and the heretofore unnoticed connection between the two, America's most unpredictable filmmaker has come up with a dark, dreamy Western called Dead Man in which the "frontier" is not a geographical limit but the far reaches of the soul. Leave your cowboy hat at home, but bring what goes inside it.
Clearly, this won't be everyone's cup of tea--or button of peyote--but Jarmusch cultists (aren't we all?) will likely be delighted to see their man stretch himself here. From 1984's Stranger Than Paradise to 1991's Night on Earth, his prevailing tone has been sly comedy salted with postmodern irony. With Dead Man, he's still shooting black-and-white stock, but he's shifted up into a kind of hallucinatory rapture with the spirit world; you can practically hear the buzzing in his head.
Still, the playful hipster hasn't completely vanished. Trust Jarmusch to actually name his protagonist William Blake--then make him a greenhorn accountant from Cleveland who, on the nasty, bloodstained trail west, is rudely shoved into the roles of gunslinger, fugitive and, well, something like the second coming of that other William Blake. In other words, another ideal setup for the soulful, half-bewildered Johnny Depp, who's developed into one of the movies' best actors.
If "William Blake" is the Yin in Jarmusch's mythology, the mysterious Indian called "Nobody," portrayed by the massive (and mightily impressive) Native American actor Gary Farmer, is the Yang. In his youth, Nobody was torn by white men from his culture and displayed on both sides of the Atlantic as a sideshow freak; he was later rejected by his own people. So now he wanders, detached from two worlds, until he becomes William Blake's conscience and, in Jarmusch's most dazzling twist, his spiritual double. The Indian, after all, is the only man in the movie who's ever read the other William Blake.
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Complex? Outside the customary borders? Yes, and thrillingly so. But Jarmusch never fails to provide visceral pleasures, too. The grubby, surreally violent town of Machine, where our Mr. Blake first comes to ground, is a frontier hell as richly detailed as the one McCabe and Mrs. Miller inhabited, and its evil patriarch, a shotgun-toting industrialist called Dickinson, played by the great Robert Mitchum, is menace incarnate. When Blake stumbles into shooting Dickinson's son, there are suddenly three hired killers on his trail, one of whom (Lance Henriksen's Cole Wilson) is reputed to be a parent-killer and a cannibal. Kindly don't inquire about the evidence. Instead, look for the cameos by John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Iggy Pop and Alfred Molina.
Some may suspect Jarmusch has jumped the tracks with Dead Man, that all this journey-of-self-discovery, ascent-into-death stuff is so much jive. Rest assured, then, that there are also a couple of Cleveland jokes in here and that Nobody's movie-long vision quest has some buoyant humor, too. By the time Nobody and William Blake reach the inevitable "mirror of water, where the sky meets the sea" and transcend, we've had both major organs stimulated--brain and funnybone. He's an able man, this Jarmusch, no matter what frontier he faces.--Gallo
Dead Man. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. With Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen and Robert Mitchum.