Louis Malle

      For anyone who’s ever deemed Jim Jarmusch’s stylistic idiosyncrasies exasperating or at least only faintly tolerable, Dead Man will be practically guaranteed to send his blood pressure straight through the roof within its opening credits: everything about the film’s production, from its sluggish and lackadaisical narrative rhythm to its structural amorphousness to its sheer opaqueness and incomprehensibility, is simply begging for contempt from the moviegoing Puritans who’ve never deigned to adapt to the man’s eccentricities as a storyteller. But be that as it may, I’ve never experienced a single drab moment in a Jarmusch picture, least of all amidst the director’s signature “pauses,” “silences,” and “lapses” in action, which are usually so redolent with anxiety, discomfiture, or downright hilarity that they strike me more as entertaining tics than artsy mannerisms. Dead Man, his largely dismissed pot Western from 1995, carries these mannerisms to a whole new level as it chronicles a spiritual odyssey across the American frontier undertaken by the accountant-turned-outlaw William Blake (Johnny Depp), doomed to an imminent demise by a bullet lodged near his heart and constrained to rely on the perplexing admonition of his Indian companion Nobody (Gary Farmer) for survival. Jarmusch showcases his minimalist trademarks in full form as he fashions up a classic Western premise, decked out with all the staple ingredients like bounty hunters and explosive shootouts, and then undercuts the typical Western’s glamour and lyricism by filtering its various clichés through the director’s brand of absurdist deadpan comedy. On a modest level, Dead Man is worth cherishing for this kooky gallows humor alone, brought to life by some splendidly facetious performances by Robert Mitchum, Iggy Pop, and Billy Bob Thornton. But as mystifying as it may be in terms of psychological or dialectical gratification, the picture is always led by some sharp, focused counter-cultural observations on the self-cannibalizing nature of American capitalism, a point communicated with obvious malice but without a trace of sanctimony or didacticism (Jarmusch is never one to consign himself to delivering a mere message). At the same time, Dead Man uses its goofy rendition of Western conventions to call into question the ethical carelessness of the genre itself, what with its traditional glorification of violence and its cultural paternalism over the Native American legacy it invites itself to depict. In its zany entirety, this film achieves nothing less than provoking a radical reevaluation of an entire art form. It’s certainly a trip, but an unbelievably thoughtful one that could effectively mutate your perception of movies in general.

Dead Man

capsule review by André de Alencar Lyon


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Jim Jarmusch