Dead Man: Jarmusch Minimalist Noir Western Starring Johnny Depp and Robert Mitchum

Minimalism defines the revisionist noir-Western “Dead Man,” a film that represented welcome artistic departure from Jarmusch’s increasingly tiresome Downtown sensibility.

Jarmusch tells the story of William Blake (Johnny Depp), a mild-mannered accountant, travels across the frontier to work for a bookkeeping firm run by a crazed man (Robert Mitchum). But when he arrives at the harsh, alienating town out of a Kafka novel, the job vanishes. Accused of a murder he didn’t commit, Blake escapes into the country, where he falls under the spell of a philosophical Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer). Communing with spirits, Nobody treats Blake as if he were the poet William Blake.

An ambitious film, “Dead Man” deals with several complex issues, such as American history, language as a weapon, indigenous culture, and violence. More multi-layered than Jarmusch’s former films, the central story takes no precedence over the subplots, which involve a talkative murderer (Michael Wincott) and a Bible-quoting man (Iggy Pop).

Reflecting the zeitgeist in its fixation on morality and transcendence, “Dead Man” stands along other death-obsessed movies, like Mike Figgis’ “Leaving Las Vegas” and Tim Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking,” both released in 1995.

Wishing to evoke the feel of a Mizoguchi film, the stylized black-and white cinematography formalizes and distances the landscape. An excellent beginning alternates shots of the changing landscape, the train wheels, and the interior of a passenger car in a rhythm that suggests both tranquility and anxiety–whenever Blake drifts off, people mysteriously disappear. The movie combines Jarmusch’s distinctive sense of rhythm with poetic symbolism.

However, Jarmusch’s attempts to link Blake’s violent, existential experience with William Blake’s poetry, a fusion echoed by Nobody, don’t go beyond shallow jokiness. The film suggests that “something mysterious” happens to Blake–a vision quest–for, at the end, he gives up his identity.

Many viewers were confused by the mystical, absurdist treatment, uncertain whether the film was no more than a put-on Western. Sharply dividing the critical community, the movie was deemed artistic achievement by the alternative press while dismissed by the more mainstream reviewers.

Indifferently distributed by Miramax, “Dead Man” failed at the box-office, further tarnishing Jarmusch from his standing as a major indie filmmaker of the 1980s.