The strangest of the three Jarmusch black and whites I've seen this week, and as strange a role as Johnny Depp has played in a career of strangely weird films, Dead Man's posters and title give away the film's thrust without need for extra thinking involved: Here is Depp in a somewhat facetious pseudo-western, shot in the chest early in the film, now a walking ghost just waiting for his pulse to stop, which will transition him to the afterlife and all its awaiting mysteries. That he's on the run via horseback in the dry, western wilderness is a throwback to the earlier Jarmusch films I've been writing about, particularly Down By Law, where three escaped convicts traverse the Louisiana swampland on the run. Though this is the first time a lead character is practically dead and still walking, figuratively one could say that about many of the characters in other Jarmusch productions.
Depp plays William Blake (not the poet), lead by Indian guide Nobody (who considers Blake the poet, or at least feigns the belief that he is) on a road-weary journey to his early demise. Blake's parents passed away in Cleveland a few months before he was hired as an accountant and asked via mail to move out west. On a train on the way there, in one of the strangest most quiet movie openings you'll find, Crispin Glover as the Train Fireman appears to Blake like the legendary Devil. You feel like he might pull out a fiddle and challenge Blake to a duel. He basically functions as a Foreteller, telling Blake he shouldn't have gotten on the train but enjoying that it's too late.
The job is a sham, and Blake, who spent all he had to head west, has barely enough money for a pint at the local saloon. He drinks, ends up in the wrong woman's bed and has a shootout with a gun stashed away under her pillow. Two are dead, he is shot and dying, and from here on out we watch him bleed all over everything in the script. It's a film about the tracks of blood he leaves as much as the harrowing reality in front of him. You feel like the grim reaper is lurking behind every shadow, but if he is, he's wearing a black cowboy hat.
It's sort of a "Pilgrim's Progress" where Blake is being taken "from this world to that which is to come." But Blake's journey is rife with hardship and other killings on the way. He has an appointment with a similar River of Death, but Blake might be descending in his last days rather than on heavenly ascent. His final victim, a vicar of some sort, tells him, "God damn your soul to hell." Blake replies: "He already has." The vicar and another man are shot, the other falling through a swinging door with a sign that reads, "Work Out Your Own Salvation." If this is a journey of the Bunyan sort, it uses similar means to get to opposite ends. We might call this "The Pilgrim's Regress."
This sounds dour. It is and it isn't. While more serious than Stranger Than Paradise or Down By Law, it retains certain characteristics of both of those films, neither of which fit easily into any one genre. There are quiet, surreal scenes, nightmarish fights ending in bloodshed, hilarious moments of biting and witty dialogue, and the film's greatest laugh -- a big one -- with a single gun shot that rings out over one of Jarmusch's famous fade to black markers. There are also a few scenes that come close to having a Lynchian flavor to them... And if we can use the term "Lynchian" in today's Film Lexicon, then I'd have to submit that these films can only be called "Jarmuschian."