Hypnotism works only if you allow it to. Even then not everyone who wants to be hypnotized can be. Jim Jarmusch movies are like that. You have to want to fall under Jarmusch's spell to enjoy his films, and even then you might never make it into the fully entranced state.
Jarmusch's bizarre new western Dead Man is no exception. The movie features some of the biggest names ever to grace a Jarmusch film A Johnny Depp in the lead, with Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover, John Hurt, and Robert Mitchum in supporting roles, as well as a fuzzy, feedback-laced soundtrack by Neil Young. But the presence of a bona fide movie star such as Depp doesn't make Dead Man a typical mainstream film any more than Kathleen Turner's involvement altered John Waters's twisted vision in Serial Mom.
Sometime in the late 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution dawns, smooth-faced, bespectacled young William Blake (Johnny Depp taking on yet another risky, offbeat role and effortlessly making it his own) ventures west to forget about his hometown of Cleveland, where he has just laid his parents to rest, and where his fiancee recently jilted him. Blake wears his best plaid suit and carries a small suitcase and a letter confirming a job offer to work as an accountant for the Dickinson Metalworks in a town called Machine ("the end of the line," according to the train's spooky fireman). You get the feeling that Blake has entered into something that will radically alter his life in ways the young man doesn't even begin to understand; like Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, Blake's mental and spiritual journey will soon overshadow his geographic wanderings.
Jarmusch uses the opening minutes of his film like a hypnotist uses a pocket watch, catching your eye and lulling you into semiconsciousness with mysterious, portentous, dialogue-free scenes set aboard a train. He slowly, repetitively fades in and out (rather than simply cutting) from shots of an increasingly ill-at-ease Blake to closeups of the train's churning wheels to ominous portraits of the young man's fellow passengers, all of whom appear to be sizing up Blake. As the train hurtles west, the new passengers become progressively scruffier and wilder looking, from salt-of-the-earth Midwestern farm families to flinty-eyed ranchers and cowhands to grizzled mountain men with long rifles and heavy fur coats. The changing faces subtly mark the train's western progress.
Images shift gradually and deliberately. The continuous fade in/fade out routine toys with the cinematically literate viewer's expectations (fades generally indicate graver and more noteworthy transitions than cuts; often they imply a significant passage of time). The effect is mildly disorienting. Time seems to become elastic. You can almost hear Jarmusch whispering in the background, "You are getting sleepy . . . "
The pace quickens a bit once the young bean counter arrives in Machine A an inhospitable hellhole of a frontier town A but the dark, foreboding mood never lets up. Tender, boylike Billy Blake hops off the train and heads directly to the metalworks factory only to discover that they've given his promised job to someone else. Despondent, nearly broke, unemployed, and more alone than he's ever been, Blake meanders aimlessly through the muddy streets of the cruel and chaotic town. As night falls he spends his last coins on a bottle of booze at a rowdy saloon, where he witnesses a crusty patron toss a beautiful paper-rose peddler named Thell (Mili Avital) into the mud with the explanation, "We'd like ya better if ya was a whore." Billy comes to her aid. Touched by his kindness, she offers him lodging at her place for the night. Just as things start to look up for the dislocated Clevelander, fate intervenes in the person of a jealous ex-lover of Thell's. Guns are drawn; Billy fires in self-defense, and when the sun rises on the young visitor's first morning in Machine, circumstances beyond his control have transformed William Blake, mild-mannered accountant, into William Blake, outlaw.
Badly wounded and barely conscious, Blake somehow manages to steal a horse and escape into the nearby woods, where he is rescued and ministered to by a fellow outcast A an English-speaking, European-educated, mixed-blood native American who calls himself Nobody (loquacious, chubby-cheeked Gary Farmer flying in the face of the silent, sinewy, noble-savage stereotype). The literate Indian mistakes William Blake for the dead English poet of the same name. He takes it upon himself to safeguard the misplaced soul until he can return Blake to the world of the spirits where he belongs. Nobody tends to Blake's wound and imparts valuable survival lessons while deriding the "stupid fucking white man" one minute and muttering mystical mumbo jumbo ("you cannot stop the clouds by the building of a ship") the next. Nobody serves as a perfect guide for the erstwhile accountant's journey from the physical world into the spiritual realm, and he provides much of the film's quirky comic relief along the way.
The longer William Blake remains at large, the higher the price on his head grows. Every opportunistic polecat with an eye toward making a quick buck joins the hunt A mercenary desperadoes, money-hungry animal skinners, enterprising marshals. From their perspective the fugitive is as good as dead. In a way they can't begin to fathom, they are right. The naive and innocent William Blake who first came to Machine no longer exists. In his place stands a new creature on a quest for enlightenment made all the more urgent by the desire of others to put a bullet through his heart and collect the reward.
Dead Man has far more in common with revisionist Westerns such as Little Big Man, Missouri Breaks, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller than it does with other more traditional (and commercial) examples of the genre like Silverado, Tombstone, and Geronimo. But Dead Man's style is pure Jim Jarmusch. From the tongue-in-cheek humor (Nobody's thoroughly modern reliance on the f-word) to the decision to shoot the film in black and white, from the loose, lyrical narrative construction to the hip casting (Iggy Pop as a cross-dressing trapper, Mitchum as the shotgun-wielding owner of Dickinson Metalworks, and a brief but memorable cameo by Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes), this hallucinatory cross-country trip to the outer reaches of America could only have been organized by Jim Jarmusch.
What have you got to lose? Relax. Let Jarmusch work his mesmerizing magic. This Dead Man tells quite a tale.
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