The Johnny Depp Archive

Dead Man (1995)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henrikson, Michael Wincott, Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, Robert Mitchum and Iggy Pop

Directed by: Jim Jarmusch

Rating: 1 2 3

'I'm a killer and I'm a clown...
You're a notch and I'm a legend'

Alice Cooper, Desperado
Johnny Depp as William Blake

Hmm. So this'll be one of the films that helped Johnny establish his Captain Weird reputation, then. In Dead Man he plays William Blake, an accountant who travels from Cleveland to the Wild West to take up a job in a town called Machine, which lies at the end of the railway line. The lengthy opening sequence, in which, clad in a clownish checked suit, wire-rimmed glasses and a pork pie hat, he sits nervously on a Kafka-esque train for what seems like a week, serves to remind us just how far away the American West is from civilisation. And it's not just the scenery that gets wilder - so too do Blake's fellow passengers, culminating in his first encounter with a complete barm. This one's played by barm specialist Crispin Glover (of Back To The Future fame, but I'm thinking more of his neurotic turn in Wild At Heart) and is only the first in a long line of crackpot characters Blake will encounter, most played by respected and slightly bonkers actors.

All at sea

On arrival in the God-forsaken town of Machine, Blake discovers that his job has gone, and following an encounter with barking mad factory owner John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, looking splendidly and irascibly bonkers), who threatens to shoot him, he finds himself out on his ear, alone and penniless. One thing leads to another and next thing he knows he's shot Dickinson's son Charles (Gabriel Byrne) and become an outlaw on the run, with a bullet in his chest and a price on his head.

With Spirit Guide Nobody

Accompanied by a fat Indian Spirit Guide called Nobody, he embarks upon a psychic, psychotic journey through a purgatorial wilderness, pursued by three crazy bounty hunters, who prove more adept at shooting each other than their quarry. As he roams aimlessly through a desolate forest (an archetypal symbol for losing one's soul), he encounters more David Lynch style weirds (including Billy Bob Thornton in a fur coat and Iggy Pop in a dress - the fact that most of the weirds are played by famous actors in funny wigs only adds to the strangeness) and ends up shooting most of them.

Like Blue Velvet, Dead Man is one of those films that shows how quickly the life of a perfectly normal, average person can be turned upside down and plunged into danger and madness. Blake, like Ichabod Crane or The Wicker Man's Sergeant Howie, is a na´ve city boy adrift in a chaotic rural backwater which operates by its own very different rules. Like Ichabod, he quickly adapts to his new surroundings, soon accepting the central tenet of the Wild West - kill or be killed - and proving to be an unlikely but highly effective gun-slinger. But unlike his namesake, Blake is no visionary, nor does he seem to have any clear sense of purpose. Instead, he simply accepts all the crazy, unexplained events that befall him as if already resigned to the fact that he's dead and on the road to hell.

So is he alive or is he, as the title of the film implies, a Dead Man? Nobody thinks he is, because Nobody thinks he is the poet William Blake. But as Blake (and the audience) can't understand a word of his mystic Indian mumbo jumbo anyway, who knows? Unlike other 'is he alive/is he dead' films (Jacob's Ladder and The Sixth Sense for example) the answer is never made clear, but certainly the film makes a lot more sense (in the loosest sense of the word) if we accept he's dead.

Blake turns gun slinger

Shot entirely in black and white, Dead Man has a surreal, dreamlike quality to it reminiscent of Eraserhead and early German Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Das Vampyr. Scenes are short, punctuated by regular blackouts, and long periods pass in which there is no dialogue at all. The eerie steel guitar soundtrack, which comes courtesy of Neil Young, is really quite unnerving (although it does start to grate on the nerves eventually). Hypnotic and engrossing, powerful images and scenes rich in black humour are nonetheless punctuated by quite a few slow stretches, and at times the film does seem to drag a bit.

With Iggy Pop, wearing a dress

As an excuse to ogle Johnny Depp, Dead Man is perfect, as he just keeps getting lovelier as the film progresses, starting off pristine and becoming increasingly dishevelled and deranged looking as his journey continues; all in all his performance is really quite a tour de force. Playing spot the cameo is fun as well, with every actor making the most of his role, however small. In particular, Robert Mitchum as John Dickinson, John Hurt as his laconic clerk, Michael Wincott as a grizzled bounty hunter and Iggy Pop as some strange bloke in the woods who's wearing a dress and bonnet are fantastic (you have to love Iggy's version of the Goldilocks story...) However, I must admit, for me the whole film was just a bit too weird. And coming from me, that's saying a lot...

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