Judge Gordon Sullivan became a legend for a few days. He didn't like it.
No one can survive becoming a legend.
Throughout the 1990s, Jim Jarmusch seemed like a committed urbanite, preferring the comfort zone of his adopted New York home. When his films took their characters out of the city, it often ended in bored wandering (Stranger than Paradise) or simply getting lost (Down By Law). His films from that era tend to also be snapshots, capturing momentary pictures of the urban environments he finds so comfortable. The New York of Stranger than Paradise, the New Orleans of Down By Law, and the Memphis of Mystery Train are gone, though preserved for us by Jarmusch. All this makes it totally surprising that for his mid-Nineties feature, one of only three fiction films he released that decade, Jarmusch made Dead Man. This hallucinatory period piece marked a turning point for Jarmusch, and now fans can enjoy its visual splendor in hi-def on Dead Man (Blu-ray).
Dead Man tells the story of William Blake (Johnny Depp, Cry-Baby), an accountant who travels west during the latter half of the nineteenth century to work in a frontier town. Upon his arrival, he's told that his job is no longer available. That night he takes up with a prostitute. When her jealous ex-boyfriend surprises them in bed, Blake is wounded while the prostitute and her ex end up dead. On the run, Blake retreats to the nearby woods, running into sympathetic Native American "Nobody" (Gary Farmer, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai) who informs Blake that the bullet in his chest cannot be removed. His death certain, Blake travels with Nobody to prepare.
Dead Man defies categorization. Some have called it a revisionist Western, an anti-Western, and its creator refers to it as an acid Western. The difficulties with nomenclature are important; Dead Man is a film that seems to capture an undeniable Western feel while simultaneously resisting pretty much all the satisfactions one typically experiences with the genre. We've got a lone hero, a posse of regulators, a helpful Indian, and a fight over a prostitute in a frontier town. However, the hero is an accountant, the posse doesn't stay a posse for long, the Indian is as apt to quote the poet William Blake as ancient wisdom, and the frontier town fight leads to Blake's unspectacular death. Jarmusch flirts with all of these elements, gently tweaking and sometimes breaking the Western formula, without ever coming off as cheeky or disrespectful. It's a triumph of genre filmmaking.
While some of Jarmusch's earlier films have stars (notably Wynona Rider and Gena Rowlands in Night on Earth), Dead Man is really the turning point for the director as far as actors are concerned. Here he assembles a cast with an impressive degree of talent and history. Johnny Depp anchors everything as William Blake. Still smarting from his teen-idol image, Dead Man is one of the handful of mid-Nineties roles in indie features that helped cement his talent. Here he's wonderful, drawing on the strangeness that would blossom into Captain Jack, while also relying on the shy bookishness that he would uncover elsewhere. He's only one face in a cast of other brilliant actors. Robert Mitchum's final role as a gun-toting business man is inspired, as is John Hurt's turn as a manager. Genre fans will appreciate Lance Henriksen's turn as a psychotic killer, and sharp-eyed music lovers will notice Iggy Pop, Benmont Tench, and Gibby Hanes. The film is worth watching for the performances alone, irrespective of the film's Western story.
The final piece of the Dead Man puzzle is Robbie Muller's stunning cinematography. Not since color began to dominate Hollywood's output have we seen such a master of black-and-white cinematography. The shades and shape he conjures are gorgeous to look at, and although I haven't tested it, I think Dead Man would work well as a silent film, just allowing the images to speak for themselves.
Muller's cinematography gets decent treatment here. The 1.78:1 AVC-encoded transfer has pretty strong detail throughout, though it can fluctuate a bit. Black levels are consistent and deep, while grain is handled without turning noise. It's not a reference quality transfer, but for a film of this age and budget it's a step up from the DVD. The stereo DTS mix is of similar quality. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and well-balanced with Neil Young's excellent score. It's not a standout (and would probably benefit from some atmospherics effects in a surround track), but serves the film. Extras include 15 minutes of deleted scenes and a music video that combines selections from Young's score with images from the film; both are letterboxed in standard def.
Although I love Dead Man, it's not a Western for those looking for men in white hats riding off to save the town. It's a slow, meditative piece that requires a lot of the viewer.
Dead Man is an interesting entry in the careers of both Jim Jarmusch and star Johnny Depp. This Blu-ray is the fine vehicle for new viewers, though fans with the old DVD will have to make an upgrade decision based largely on a strong (though not perfect) upgrade in the video.
Although fans might pine for a Criterion-style release of Dead Man, this release is not guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment
• Deleted Scenes
Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.