review for Dead Man on AllMovie

Dead Man (1995)
by Dan Friedman review

The interesting thing about Western movies is that they are the oldest genre in the cinema and yet, because of that status, every couple of years there seems to be a reinvention or new take on what is, by definition, the most American of stories. Dead Man, putting it mildly, ain't your grandfather's Western. In fact, it breaks the Western stereotype in so many ways, maybe Westerns should be defined by more than just their setting. To begin with, the director is indie darling Jim Jarmusch, who would be associated with Westerns in much the same way that Jerry Lewis would be associated with Holocaust dramas. This is, after all, the same man who gave us such classics as the Elvis homage Mystery Train and Down by Law, which introduced Roberto Benigni to American audiences. Add to that the character of William Blake, a bookish accountant played by Johnny Depp, who is most decidedly not your typical Western hero. In fact, Blake is the type of character who would most likely have been comedy relief to John Wayne not too many years ago. Briefly, Blake is hired by a corrupt industrialist (Robert Mitchum, in his last screen role) to serve as his company's accountant. Upon spending everything he has to reach the West, he is told his job has been given to another, thus sending into motion a series of events where Blake is wounded and on the run from a gang of bounty hunters, including Lance Henriksen. While there are bits of adventurism, the film is really a much quieter character study of a man forced to survive in an unfamiliar place by unfamiliar means and how it changes him as a human being. As a consequence, the film applies layer upon layer of subtext, some of which is as meaningless as the rest is meaningful. Blake encounters a loner Indian named, appropriately enough, Nobody, who believes Blake to be the great English poet William Blake and attempts to save his soul before Blake can expire from his wounds (not to give anything away, but the title of the film says it all). The film does follow some classic Western traits, in that it is gorgeously shot; the black-and-white cinematography is excellent, particularly in the opening sequence that chronicles Blake's journey west. Dead Man can be a little slow-moving at times, but it definitely engages both the senses and the philosophical portions of the brain that sometimes need a good, swift kick.