Film Highlight: Dead Man


North America's own Heart of Darkness, this underappreciated Jim Jarmusch masterwork may be one of the best films of the past decade—provided the viewer can bear to drift through the "wild West" along with Johnny Depp's artless loner and to take direction from the image rather than the story. What there is of the latter is pretty sketchy: A prissy Eastern accountant (Depp) takes the train west to a horrible frontier town, finds the job he was promised already filled, shoots a man who threatens a whore, and flees into the wilderness, where he gets lost and found in all sorts of interesting ways. His name is William Blake, which is a clue to something—according to a koan-spouting Native American guide named Nobody (Gary Farmer). But a clue to what? Is Depp's Blake actually dead? Is he a dead poet? Is his poetry writ with blood? What would that mean? Jarmusch isn't telling, but he does show, in dry-as-dust black and white, the plump and prosperous Eastern businessmen, the stern pioneers, the brutal frontiersmen slaughtering bison from the train, the filthy machinery that transforms unfenced "resource" into wealth for a few and misery for many, the Nobodies whose claim to the land was never taken seriously. (Stanzas writ in blood, indeed.) But I'm making the movie sound too schematic. There's no single "truth" to it, and much that seeks to dislodge us from easy formulations—Iggy Pop in a dress, for example. And Neil Young's ashy, echoing guitar. And startling visitations from a slew of iconic actors including Robert Mitchum, Lance Henriksen, John Hurt, Gary Farmer, and—with his initially trapped, then apocalyptic eyes—Johnny Depp. If the still-faced star has often exhibited a fondness for silent-movie techniques, then Dead Man is his Modern Times—only time is a bloody river moving backward and forward at once, as men with guns (re)write history and a man with a camera shoots from the hip, trying to see around the myths. Jarmusch believes there's no one here whose hands aren't bloody—and when the lights come up, we see that he's right.