Johnny Depp stars as a sissy Ohio accountant turned outlaw in this Jim Jarmusch western. Yup, western. Jarmusch says it’s a genre “open to metaphor.” Depp’s Bill Blake is mistaken for the late English poet William Blake by a chatterbox Plains Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer), who quotes from the master’s Proverbs of Hell as he tries to return Bill to the spirit level of the world.
Scared off yet, pardner? Jarmusch, always an acquired taste, really tests audiences’ limits this time. Even admirers of the writer and director’s hip, contemporary meditations (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth) may be thrown by this metaphysical period piece that too often finds Jarmusch enjoying his own private joke at the expense of viewer patience and narrative coherence.
Dead Man pokes along for two hours and 14 minutes, beginning with an attenuated train ride west that shows Bill staring blankly at the scenery and passengers. Depp spends the film reacting to different characters played in cameos by the eccentric likes of Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Alfred Molina, and Iggy Pop in drag.
Arriving in the Western town of Machine, where prostitutes perform blow jobs in the streets, Bill learns that the position he’s been promised by a factory boss, Robert Mitchum, is already filled. Later, when Bill shoots the boss’s son (Gabriel Byrne) in self-defense, the boss hires a trio of bounty hunters, including one (Lance Henriksen) who may be a cannibal. That’s when Nobody starts prodding Bill with spirit talk and the movie becomes a trippy journey into primitivism – part Apocalypse Now and part Blazing Saddles.
There are compensations, notably Farmer’s ingratiating performance, Robby Muller’s striking black-and-white camera work and Neil Young’s tangy guitar score. Jarmusch’s offbeat humor pops up now and then – two marshals are named Lee and Marvin – but the deadpan whimsy that once drew us to Jarmusch’s characters has degenerated into modish posturing. It’s hard to feel much empathy for the dying Bill as his boat sails off to nirvana. Instead, we admire the play of light on the water. Being open to metaphor, I’d say that Jarmusch is becoming a servant to the style that used to serve him.