Set in the 1870s, Dead Man seems to be about the violent changes wrought by the industrial age: The dystopic Machine literally seals Blake's fate, although the film's underlying spirituality allows the man to return to "the place he came from"--which isn't to say Cleveland. Along the way, he evolves: into a friend, a killer, even into a dead man. With its countless fade-outs, seemingly aimless narrative, and deliberately repetitive Neil Young score--not to mention its bevy of cult-star cameos by Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, and a dolled-up Iggy Pop--the movie consistently privileges style and tone over conventional storytelling, typified by a beautifully weird moment near the end in which Blake bonds with a decomposing Bambi.
Per Jarmusch, not much happens, but all of it's magically filtered through Depp's foreign Everyman: a cowboy cum model with shoulder-length hair, oval wire-rims, a top hat, a checkered "clown suit," and impossibly glossy lips. Jarmusch pulls his camera in so tight that Depp often resembles a softly out-of-focus, silent-era actress; no wonder Blake seems alluring to two grungy backwoodsmen, who proceed to fight over who'll "have" him. Throughout, the film stays fully invested in the inner life of its protagonist, a strategy I Shot Andy Warhol might well have taken to heart. Albeit so slight that it sometimes hardly seems to exist, Dead Man contains a depth beyond the frame. Depp's Blake might not even be alive for most of the film, although the actor gives him the resonance of both a "stupid fucking white man" and a matinee hero of the most purely sensual kind.