One noteworthy advan- tage of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995), which shows at 6:45 p.m. on Thursday and at 9:30 p.m. on Friday at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, is that the film's polarizing tone and style are established persuasively within the first five minutes. Here's how it kicks off: Johnny Depp, as the jumpy, bespectacled accountant William Blake from Cleveland, whiles away the hours on what looks like a godawfully long and boring train ride to Machine, a frontier town which houses the metalworks at which he's been promised a bookkeeping job. He plays solitaire and naps and evaluates the depreciating hygiene of his car-mates.
Before long, a coal-covered Crispin Glover emerges from the train's furnace room to initiate an unsolicited conversation with Blake, warning him against his enterprise while trapper types suddenly start shooting buffalo from the train's windows. The conversation is so intentionally freaky and stilted — thanks in large part to Glover's mesmerizing weirdness — that you'll know right away exactly what you're in for: something pleasingly hypnotic or else something unendurable.
Jarmusch, our pompadoured homeboy from Akron and sultan of the indie darlings, has called Dead Man a "psychedelic Western." It's certainly a far cry from both the sheriff vs. outlaw morality plays of yesteryear and the more recent high-octane, big-budget "Westerns," which use tropes from the genre more or less as interchangeable props.
This one's a quirky, slow, often rudderless, metaphysical boat ride, shot in black and white and set to the strumming electric guitar of Neil Young, who "composed" the soundtrack but often sounds like he's just idly plucking random strings while watching TV and trying to remember how "Halleluja" goes or something.
Once Blake arrives in Machine — in a hilarious sequence of Depp reactions to the callous realities (e.g. spirited public fellatio) of Western life — he soon kills the local tycoon's youngest son in the midst of a lover's quarrel. (The woman-in-question, by the way, one Thel Russell, is played by the Israeli heartthrob Mili Avital, who had just arrived from Tel-Aviv when she was cast in her big-screen debut as the transgalactic love interest of James Spader in 1994's Stargate. So put that one in your pipe and go to trivia night).
At any rate, Blake is soon on the run with the aid of an Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer), and their outlaw scampering slowly assumes the transcendental drugginess of the Native American spirit quest. Symbols are absolutely everywhere, not unlike a postmodern novel. While a trio of cold-blooded assassins banter and give chase, Blake encounters a cast of bizarre characters — cameos by Gabriel Byrne, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina — in the sequential style of The Little Prince.
Much like this summer's long, boring box-office bust Lone Ranger (which starred Depp as Tonto, on the cultural flipside), Dead Man is most certainly long and boring. There are perhaps 12 too many scenes that begin and end around a campfire. But these weird little kernels — anchored often by Depp's nebbish Blake and texturized by the evocative Western landscape — are just so much more unique and compelling than the campy bickering, broad gestures and (admittedly awesome, but totally superficial) action sequences courtesy of Armie Hammer and Gore Verbinski.