filmhead.gif (6498 bytes)

Dead Man/C+, A-

A young Easterner named William Blake sets out on a train trip West to a promised office job at Dickinson Steel Mill only to find that the job has been given to someone else. One by one, the series of coincidences sets the young man on an unexpected journey.

Watching Dead Man, it occurred to me that this film might easily have been created by a writer working under the influence of a hallucinogenic substance. One could even make a case that much of the action after Blake’s unceremonious dismissal from Dickinson’s office is Blake’s death dream.

Dead Man is a trip to nowhere. The initial encounter on the train with the prediction by the train’s fireman that Blake is already a dead man directly foreshadows the foreshortening of Blake’s trip, further influencing the likelihood of the dream theory. Even Jarmusch’s choice of characters are inconsistent and enigmatic, more dream-like than real. Where in heaven’s name did the corpulent Indian come from except some contemporary dream of the West. The character, Nobody, seems consistently out of place.

It’s a shame that Jarmusch didn’t have a better script to work with, but he can only blame himself as the author. There are magical elements to the director’s visual story telling techniques, but the clarity of the photography is hopelessly impeded by the fogginess of the scripted vision. Jarmusch does have the benefit of Johnny Depp’s eager and honest performance as William Blake, but the actor is lost in the forest of failed scripts. Robert Mitchum has a small role as old man Dickinson and is wonderfully eccentric in his few screen minutes.

The use of black and white photography is the most significant pleasure of Dead Man. Coupled with Jarmusch’s signature black-out cuts, many of the compositions look like perfect period photographs. The black and white melds beautifully with dramatic lighting and it is used extensively and well in Dead Man. By imagining color in place of black and white in many scenes, it is easy to understand dramatic emphasis of the simpler palette. The laser disc is quite beautiful in its realization of these images.