Fifteen years after his first film, Permanent Vacation, in 1995 Jarmusch wrote and shot his first western (and sixth film in total) at the height of his artistic maturity. He was an excellent screenwriter, with a very recognizable directorial style, and he was (deservedly) lucky to be able to work with incredible actors thanks to his career up to that point with years of independent movie-making without any compromise.
The cast of Dead Man includes Johnny Depp (at that time he wasn’t not a parody of himself dressed as a pirate), Lance Henriksen (perfectly cast as a psychopathic bounty hunter), John Hurt (the legendary British actor who worked in unforgettable films like Alien and The Elephant Man), Robert Mitchum (an icon of western cinema), Iggy Pop (in line with Jarmusch’s tradition of working with musicians like John Lurie in his first three films, Tom Waits in Down By Law and in the recent The Dead Don’t Die, and Screamin ‘Jay Hawkins and Joe Strummer in Mystery Train, not to mention all the ones in Coffee And Cigarettes), Gabriel Byrne (who in the same year also appeared in The Usual Suspects by Bryan Singer), Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton… In short, the cast is stellar.
Jarmusch used them all in a perfect way to show once again the violent, raw, and real side of the United States, but this time the action is set in the XIX century. Dead Man is a western movie which shows how the United States were born: thanks to violent, racist and unscrupulous men and, above all, on a land which was taken by spilling the blood of millions of Native Americans massacred without mercy and with the precise planned destruction of their world (think about the chilling scene of the bison shooting from the train encouraged by the US government). It is also one of the very few western movies containing a realistic and accurate depiction of the native culture, with a Native American co-protagonist, Gary Farmer: his character Nobody says out loud many of the terrible truths about how the natives were treated without weighing down the narrative.
The plot is that of a typical western movie, even if Jarmusch’s touch can be felt in the dialogues and in the writing of the characters. William Blake leaves the city to work as an accountant in John Dickinson’s (Robert Mitchum) factory , but due to his late arrival, he finds out that he’s been replaced. Without a job and without much money, in the evening he meets the beautiful Thel (Mili Avital) with whom he decides to spend the night. But here comes her drunk ex-boyfriend Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), son of the powerful Dickinson, who kills her and then gets killed by Blake himself.
This triggers a manhunt (mainly carried out by the three bounty hunters interpreted by Henriksen, Eugene Byrd and by Michael Wincott – the latter worked a lot in the nineties always interpreting bad guys) against the poor accountant who, wounded, begins a journey which makes him discover the brutal origins of his country. We viewers follow his journey filtered by his blurred perception of the world due to his wound, filled with surreal dialogues (especially those with Nobody) but, as it often happens with Jarmusch, also profound and interesting ideas. The poems of William Blake, the English author called like Johnny Depp’s character, are often quoted in a sort of game in which the name’s coincidence is eventually important for the story.
I believe that this is one of Jarmusch’s best films. It has a relentless rhythm, a remarkable evolution of the protagonist, a sense of tragedy that goes beyond the characters and makes us think of how much blood has been shed to build today’s America, a wonderful improvised soundtrack (mainly with a guitar) by the great Neil Young, a fascinating black and white cinematography (and Jarmusch, like he did in Stranger Than Paradise, once again separates the scenes with brief moments of totally black screen), all the actors offer brilliant performances (that’s a novelty in the filmography of Jim Jarmusch!)…
In short, Dead Man is a great film in which the director continues to develop his themes but does so by adapting his style to a solid and compelling story. If Down By Law is his best comedy, this is probably his best drama, at least in my opinion. Ciao!
PS: in this film the protagonist incredibly doesn’t smoke, although everyone asks him for tobacco all the time!