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down among the dead men:
dead man
the brave

reviews by rob gonsalves

director/screenwriter
Jim Jarmusch

producer
Demetra J. MacBride

cinematographer
Robby Müller

music
Neil Young

editor
Jay Rabinowitz


cast

Johnny Depp (William Blake)
Gary Farmer
(Nobody)
Lance Henriksen
(Cole Wilson)
Michael Wincott
(Conway Twill)
Mili Avital
(Thel Russell)
Iggy Pop
(Sally Jenko)
Crispin Glover
(Train Fireman)
Eugene Byrd
(Johnny 'The Kid' Pickett)
Michelle Thrush
(Nobody's Girlfriend)
Gabriel Byrne
(Charlie Dickinson)
John Hurt
(John Scholfield)
Alfred Molina
(Trading Post Missionary)
Robert Mitchum
(John Dickinson)
Gibby Haynes
(Man With Gun in Alley)
Billy Bob Thornton
(Big George)
Jared Harris
(Benmont Tench)
Steve Buscemi
(Bartender)


mpaa rating: R
running time: 121m
u.s. release: May 10, 1996
video availability: VHS - DVD


other jim jarmusch films
reviewed on this website:

- ghost dog: the way of the samurai


see also:

- greil marcus' excellent salon.com
article about dead man


director
Johnny Depp

screenwriters
D.P. Depp
Johnny Depp
Paul McCudden
based on the novel by
Gregory McDonald

producers
Charles Evans Jr.
Carroll Kemp

cinematographer
Vilko Filac

music
Iggy Pop

editor
Pasquale Buba


cast

Johnny Depp (Raphael)
Marlon Brando
(McCarthy)
Marshall Bell
(Larry)
Elpidia Carrillo
(Rita)
Frederic Forrest
(Lou Sr.)
Clarence Williams III
(Father Stratton)
Max Perlich
(Lou Jr.)
Luis Guzmán
(Luis)
Cody Lightning
(Frankie)
Nicole Mancera
(Marta)
Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman
(Papa)
Pepe Serna
(Alessandro)
Lupe Ontiveros (Maria)
Iggy Pop (Man Eating Bird Leg)
Tricia Vessey
(Luis' Girl #1)


mpaa rating: none
running time: 123m
french release: July 30, 1997
video availability: VHS - DVD
(in Europe and Asia)


In the mid-'90s, Johnny Depp was thinking about dying. Oh, I'm sure he wasn't prepared or willing to go just yet, not in real life; he just explored the possibility in two underseen, underrated films that came out within a year or so of each other. They make natural companion pieces -- the same way Depp's Sleepy Hollow and From Hell do -- and should ideally be screened back-to-back, if, that is, you can find either of them (don't bother looking at your friendly local Kmart for the first one, and don't bother looking anywhere in America for the second).

We begin with Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, a pristine and delicate mood piece -- or, at least, as delicate as a movie with such alarming incidents of violence can be. Surely it wasn't his intention, but Jarmusch, in opting for black and white photography (world-class D.P. Robby Müller did the honors, in a portfolio of lush, stark beauty that warrants inclusion among the all-time finest achievements of cinematography), found a way around the MPAA's overactive gag reflex. Certainly such images as a fresh corpse's skull crushed under an assassin's heavy boot, followed by a sprightly dual jet of blood through the nose, would have dared an NC-17 rating if shot in color.

The first five minutes -- the deceptively lugubrious train journey of William Blake (Depp) to the hellish town of Machine, where an accountancy job supposedly awaits him -- show you exactly why Jarmusch dismissed color this time out. Jarmusch must've seen how much fun David Lynch had with b&w portraits of ancient chugging machinery in The Elephant Man and decided to join in. Watching the black steam of the engine befouling the gray-metal sky as rusty gears churn, you may forget to breathe as you realize how seldom you see true examples of black-and-white artwork at the movies these days. Blake sits through the train ride, sometimes glancing out the window, sometimes leafing through a pamphlet with odd advertisements, often nodding off (the movie keeps helpfully fading to black, as if turning the lights out for him). Your first indication that this is a Jarmusch movie, and not just a radical change of milieu, is Crispin Glover's appearance as a soot-covered engine worker who sits across from Blake and expresses bottomless hostility while barely maintaining a poker face.

Blake arrives in Machine, where a towering Robert Mitchum (in his final screen performance -- a good one to go out on) points a rifle at him and denies any such job waiting for him. The dejected Blake detains himself at a boarding house with a tenuously reformed whore (Mili Avital); they are interrupted in bed by her estranged beau (Gabriel Byrne), leading to gunplay that results in two and a half corpses. The half corpse is Blake himself, carrying a bullet in his frame not deep enough to kill him outright but too deep to dig out. The latter fact is discovered by Nobody (Gary Farmer), an Indian who happens across Blake's unconscious body. Nobody, it turns out, is a scholar of poetry; hearing Blake's name, he takes the white man for the William Blake -- "You are a poet and a painter, and now, William Blake, you are a killer of white men." Blake isn't inclined to argue. He's been a nobody himself; now, at least, he gets to be somebody, even if it's somebody else.

The movie proceeds slowly and digressively, like an Anthony Mann Western chilled out and left to thaw, wedded to a drizzly and mournful fuzz-guitar score by Neil Young; sometimes you feel it should've been titled Deadpan. As if to compensate for the inexpressive-by-design Depp (few actors can do as much with as little facial animation as Depp can) and the stoically bemused Nobody, Jarmusch fills this text's margins with antic performers -- Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jared Harris turn up, bickering around a campfire; Alfred Molina, a smilingly racist trader who offers Nobody pox-ridden blankets and obsequiously seeks Blake's autograph; Lance Henriksen as a cartoonishly vicious assassin, with Michael Wincott as his partner, filling the air with raspy, inconsequential observations. For a while the narrative plays out as a collection of anecdotes, a horseback road movie; then, as Blake draws nearer to death and makes it to Nobody's village, Jarmusch goes all the way into mysticism and absurdity.

I know (and have read) several people who have no patience for the elaborate dawdling in Dead Man. It's true that if you attempt to catch it at too late an hour, you may nod off along with Blake -- that opening sequence is a test. But both times I've seen it, I was held by Depp's transformation from white-man non-entity to the Jarmusch version of the affectless Man With No Name, blandly asking an antagonist "Do you know my poetry?" before delivering a short lead haiku. Physically beautiful, temperamentally reflective, "meaningless" scene for scene until you ponder it afterward, the film is itself a poem -- a meditation on death that shrugs at life but then moves beyond a shrug. If you have the stomach for its wanderings, and its "poetry written with blood," this is an original and masterful achievement. Dead on the surface (even the photography has the grim authority of the slab), it comes to life, vampire-like, in your head days later.


As of this writing in June 2002, Johnny Depp's directorial debut, The Brave -- which premiered at Cannes five years ago, and thereafter played in France, where they're more tolerant of movies like this -- still hasn't gotten an American release, even on video. It's been shown in a few countries, and it's readily available online as either a bootleg tape (which I don't recommend) or an Asian all-region DVD (not the best transfer in the world, but a damn sight better than the bootleg, and at least it's letterboxed). Is the movie that bad -- so bad no American distributor wanted it, even with the presence of Depp and Marlon Brando (in a two-scene "special appearance" reminiscent of Robert Mitchum in Dead Man)? Not hardly. It has flaws -- it has at least one major one -- but overall this is an honorable and provocative debut.

Depp is Raphael, a rock-bottom-poor Native American living in a (literal) dump with his wife Rita (Elpidia Carrillo), son (Cody Lightning), and daughter (Nicole Mancera). There are no jobs anywhere around, especially not for those of Raphael's race and criminal past. So he takes a bus into town and meets with a shadowy, wheelchair-bound man named McCarthy (Brando). Though the script doesn't make it nearly as explicit as Gregory McDonald's source novel does, McCarthy makes snuff films; Raphael is there to star in one -- submitting himself to be tortured to death for the camera -- and his family will get $50,000, which Raphael hopes is enough to get Rita and the kids out of the soon-to-be-bulldozed scavengers' community.

Like McDonald, Depp focuses on Raphael's last days. Given a sizable cash advance, Raphael splurges on gifts and toys for his family, going so far as to build a makeshift amusement park for the kids. Rita suspects Raphael of falling back into crime; he's too aware of his past to get too mad at her for assuming the worst. Also skeptical of Raphael's new fortune -- he claims to have found a job at "a warehouse in town" -- are the visiting Father Stratton (Clarence Williams III), who knows what will happen to Raphael's family if he gets sent to jail again, and the scuzzy Luis (Luis Guzmán), Raphael's former partner in crime, who thinks Raphael has pulled off a big score and wants in on it. For good measure, Raphael is hounded by McCarthy's callous, psychotic toady Larry (Marshall Bell), who wants to make sure Raphael doesn't back out of the deal.

These are all distractions, though; the core of the story is how Raphael conducts himself in his final days with his family. Most of the power of the film derives from what we know and what everyone but Raphael doesn't know -- that whatever joy we see him bringing to his loved ones won't last. Raphael springs for a huge fiesta for everyone in the community, and it's about the most depressing and forlorn celebration you could ever hope to witness, given the subtext of impending doom. About the only comic relief is good old Luis Guzmán, whose vicious character we're never happy to see, even though we're always glad of Guzmán's company.

Depp does a smooth and unflashy job as director, taking a page or two from his former director Jarmusch. He takes his time; he fills the screen with underused and quirky character actors (it's always cool to see Pepe Serna, forever remembered as the ill-fated chainsaw victim in Scarface); he even recruits Iggy Pop to put together a moody score, just like Jarmusch did with Neil Young. Depp even scooped Jarmusch by using actress Tricia Vessey (who went on to play the mobster's daughter in Ghost Dog and here plays one of Luis' drug-addled chippies) before Jarmusch did. Though the pace is slow and sometimes awkward or poky, I think Depp's debut is worthy of comparison with that of Sean Penn (who would've been right at home with this despairing material).

Readers of McDonald's trim, addictive book will regret a couple of key instances of soft-pedaling on the part of the screenwriters. In the book, McCarthy is a swine who enjoys regaling Raphael with sickeningly precise details of what will be done to him for the snuff film. In the movie, Brando takes the opportunity to indulge in an Apocalypse Now-like monologue about how the noblest thing a man can do is to face painful death courageously and, by so doing, teach others how to accept death. Perhaps Depp didn't want to set up false expectations about what the audience would see -- for we see nothing of Raphael's fate -- or maybe Brando wanted to say something more spiritual (it sounds improvised, and not in a good way). Either way, if you're not paying absolute attention you might even miss the detail that they're buying Raphael for a snuff film, not just torture-for-hire.

For whatever reason -- maybe he just didn't have the heart to do it -- Depp also throws away the horrific irony of McDonald's ending: Raphael, who is illiterate, has signed a contract with McCarthy that he doesn't realize is just gibberish. So not only will he be tortured to death, his family will get nothing. The movie simply ends with Raphael taking the silent final journey up to the torture chamber; we see no fake contract, though we may have doubts anyway about Rita seeing any of the money.

Still, Depp has made a moving and compassionate debut, one that neither has nor offers any illusions about the prospects of Native Americans in the land taken away from them (I'll bet that's one reason Brando agreed to appear here). The movie is short on political speeches; it just shows us the squalid fact of life for these people, as McDonald did, and lets us ponder the horror of an existence in which a man can become convinced that the only way to provide for his family is to let himself be butchered. Maybe that more than anything else -- its vision of America as a country that drove its original population into death, disease, drunkenness and despair -- explains why you haven't seen an American release for The Brave and aren't likely to any time soon.




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