Critics' Corner
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Desson Howe - Weekend section, "The movie gets stuck in limbo."

Rita Kempley - Style section, "Bad movies have a way of writing their own epitaphs."


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'Dead Man' Stars Depp

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William Blake, travels to the edge of civilization by train. The landscape outside and the passengers inside become wilder and woollier with every weary mile. Blake has spent the last of his savings for a ticket to Machine, where he expects to take a position as an accountant. But the factory has already filled the post.

Forlorn and without prospects, Blake walks the streets of Machine. The only thing of beauty, a woman who sells paper flowers, is soon found dead, and Blake, who shot the real killer in self-defense, is wanted for the crime.

Wounded in the incident, he encounters Nobody, an Indian who mistakes the white man for the English poet of the same name. Nobody believes that he must now escort the late bard back to the spirit world where he belongs. Thus the two set off together, pursued by merciless lawmen, a cannibalistic bounty hunter and other denizens of this scarred terrain. -- Rita Kempley
Rated R


Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Johnny Depp; Crispin Glover; John Hurt; Mili Avital; Gary Farmer; Robert Mitchum; Gabriel Byrne; Michael Wincott; Iggy Pop
Running Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Filmographies: Johnny Depp; John Hurt







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'Dead Man' Tells Tale

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 17, 1996

Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man"-an existential sitcom of a western full of deadpan humor, a sort of unhurried, art-house pace and some of the strangest characters ever seen-offers many pleasures. For one, there's Johnny Depp's comically restrained performance as an accountant-turned-outlaw in the 1800s; and for another, Gary Farmer's amusing turn as a Plains Indian who likes peyote and the poet William Blake and calls every westerner "Stupid White Man."

Fans of Jarmusch's work ("Stranger Than Paradise," "Down By Law," "Mystery Train") may divide sharply on how they feel about the movie as a whole, however. Its main character sustains a serious bullet wound and like him "Dead Man" seems to ebb away. After a promising beginning and an amusing middle, the movie gets stuck in limbo.

The beginning is quintessential Jarmusch: An accountant from Cleveland called William Blake (Depp) is sitting in a train as it trundles toward its destination: Machine, the last town on the edge of the known world. He stares straight ahead, saying nothing, revealing nothing. On the lengthy journey, he's accompanied by an ever-changing array of passengers-tight-lipped varmints, glaring women and a grimy faced fireman (that prince of the weird, Crispin Glover) who offers dire warnings about his future.

Arriving (finally!) in Machine, Blake learns that his job has been given to someone else. Frustrated, he drinks away the last of his money, then tumbles into bed with a sweet-natured local girl called Thel (Mili Avatal). When a jealous lover (Gabriel Byrne) bursts into the bedroom, a gunfight ensues, and hapless Blake finds himself on the lam for the murder of two people.

Befriended in the wilderness by a resourceful, poetry-quoting Indian called Nobody (Farmer), Blake tries to keep ahead of his pursuers, not realizing he has just embarked on the fatalistic spiritual odyssey of his life.

Jarmusch uses the western as a point of stylistic departure. "Dead Man," filmed in beautiful, high-contrast black and white by his regular cinematographer Robby Mueller, is an exercise in comic repetition. Both Blake's journey and composer Neil Young's spare, electric guitar score seem endlessly circular; and people are always asking Blake for tobacco. Unfortunately, the movie turns in on itself, becomes redundant, even by its own terms. It isn't long before you wish something significant would happen to rally the movie's final sluggishness-like someone sending in the cavalry or something.

DEAD MAN (Unrated) - Contains sexual situations, profanity and violence (including one macabre act of violence).

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'Dead Man': Cowpoet & Indian

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 17, 1996

With "Dead Man," Jim Jarmusch adds his two cents-the coins on a corpse's eyes-to the growing disdain for the mythos of the western. His revisionist message, while gussied up in flip metaphysical finery, is essentially that of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven": The frontier was a hellhole.

Jarmusch's poetic, peyote-stoked road movie follows a tenderfoot accountant (torpid Johnny Depp) from the purgatory of 19th-century Cleveland to the boundaries of the known world-and beyond. Depp, you see, is no ordinary accountant, but an allegorical representative of Western man in the New World. Or as the film's resident wise Native American puts it, he's a "stupid white man." And as such, he must undertake a journey of atonement so that his spirit may find rest. Or something like that.

The film begins as the prissy protagonist, William Blake, travels to the edge of civilization by train. The landscape outside and the passengers inside become wilder and woollier with every weary mile. Already incongruous in his natty plaid suit and floppy tie, the Easterner begins not only to look but to feel altogether alien.

Blake has spent the last of his savings for a ticket to Machine, where he expects to take a position at the Dickinson Metalworks. But the factory, which symbolizes industrial encroachment, has already filled the post. When Blake demands to speak to the owner, the office manager (John Hurt) laughs in his face, symbolizing bad managerial skills.

Forlorn and without prospects, Blake walks the muddy streets of ramshackle Machine, where harlots and morticians vie for customers in the shadow of the saloon. The only thing of beauty, a woman (Mili Avital) who sells paper flowers, is soon found dead, and Blake, who shot the real killer in self-defense, is wanted for the crime.

Seriously wounded in the incident, he encounters Nobody (affable Gary Farmer), a Blood-and-Blackfoot Indian who mistakes the wounded white man for the visionary English poet of the same name. Nobody believes that he must now escort the late bard back to the spirit world where he belongs. Thus the two set off together, pursued by merciless lawmen, a cannibalistic bounty hunter and other denizens of this scarred terrain.

The farther Blake gets from Cleveland-or is it England?-the more murderous he becomes. As Nobody has predicted, his gun will replace his tongue and his poetry will now be written in blood. Why? Well, as the flower girl back in Machine explained when Blake found a gun under her pillow: "This is America."

In their quest for meaning, Nobody and Blake aren't so very different from the lost souls who populate Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Down by Law." They're all searching for America, but it's an America that has vanished, or maybe never was. In their listless wanderings they discover that ours is a lovely land-especially as seen through the lens of cinematographer Robby Muller-if one that is far from ideal.

"Dead Man" is a reiteration of these notions in boots and spurs. For all the lip service paid to Blake's metaphysical poetry-some of Nobody's lines are Blake verbatim-Jarmusch's own thoughts regarding the hereafter aren't so cosmic. (Although Neil Young must have grasped something pretty heavy when he wrote the portentous electric guitar score.)

The film features a posse of cameo turns: Robert Mitchum as an evil industrialist, Gabriel Byrne as Blake's first victim, Michael Wincott as the bounty hunter, Iggy Pop as a hunter in Buffalo Gal drag. In other words, everybody but Steve Buscemi. Unfortunately, their characters are no more than highfalutin cartoons, emblematic of America's failings-real or imagined, past or present, spiritual, political or ecological.

Bad movies have a way of writing their own epitaphs. Here, the protagonist engraves the tombstone: "I've had it up to here," Blake says. "I haven't understood a word you've said. . . ."

Dead Man is rated R for violence, graphic sex and language.


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