You have to admire a director whose personal expression is both so distinct and so carefully administered that one review may fairly be applied to an entire filmography. I am not such an expert on American indie film darling Jim Jarmusch that I can say whether or not certain of his 13 films are outliers and not as representative of his peculiar artistic personality, but of the six I’ve seen — and now four reviewed on this site over the past five years — it’s becoming increasingly difficult to say anything new. Without looking back at my reviews of MYSTERY TRAIN (1989), ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013), and DOWN BY LAW (1986), I am pretty certain that I will be repeating myself in this review of his western Dead Man (1995).
Although the project that brings me to Dead Man is The Filmography of Robert Mitchum, the veteran actor only has two scenes in what would be one of his final movies. Dead Man is, as much as it’s a Jarmusch movie, a Johnny Depp movie. It’s interesting to look back at the 1990s when Depp seemed far less annoying than he does now — although, in that costume he looks like a precious mix of Buster Keaton and Benny & Joon — and take note of how little he has changed as both a performer and as a curator of affected quirkiness. Those same qualities, enlarged and in the wrong hands, become insufferable. Jarmusch, with his chic inexpressiveness, is a good controlling influence on Depp, even if Depp lacks the human qualities that a Jarmusch movie is most sorely lacking.
In Dead Man, Depp stars as a blank slate, a timid accountant who travels across the country for a job that no longer exists, stumbles unawares into a love triangle, is wounded by a bullet that won’t kill him, and becomes an outlaw.... just because there’s nothing else to do? Like most other Depp performances, the hats and mustaches may come and go, but his lack of natural expression stays the same. If I were Gene Shalit, I might write something like, “Jarmusch may as well have titled it Dead Pan!” But it is one of the everlasting currents of the Jarmusch style that everything be as droll as possible, that everyone remains unmoved even when the world goes crazy, for the characters in Jarmusch movies are, depending on your charity, passive victims of existential circumstance or ornaments within an attractive but stifling adherence to an undeniably cool artificial bohemian aesthetic. About that aesthetic: certainly, the best thing about Dead Man is Robby Müller’s black and white cinematography, which echoes the early photos of the old American West. It is great-looking (save for the opening titles, which look like they were generated on an Amiga Video Toaster), so there's that.
What’s more difficult to praise, if you react as I do to Jarmusch movies, is everything else. Existentialism can be explored in ways that are provocative and profound, but it can also be used like a crutch upon which an artist may fall back for lack of anything else. I'm always left unmoved by Jarmusch’s ideas, if I’m even certain they are ideas. They seem to me more like impulses, like knee-jerk sarcastic asides from a high school kid who is not as smart or witty as he thinks he is. Dead Man is full of hints at jokes and feelings, but Jarmusch either can’t be bothered to realize them, or knows that evidence of effort would threaten his meticulously curated cool veneer. This approach might work better if there was something lifelike bubbling underneath the droll demeanor, but I don’t detect it (I suspect that Adam Driver in Paterson (2016) may finally give a Jarmusch movie the irrepressible spirit they need, so I'm looking forward to that one). It feels like an exercise in style for style’s sake, with random bits of quirky humor and shocking violence thrown into the foreground for momentary distraction.
I know that a lot of people delight in Jarmusch’s narrative style, but I’m always looking for the substance and come up short. I typically almost find his movies mildly amusing, almost find the characters mildly interesting, and almost locate an idea worth caring about. But “almost” can’t compete with what I do find in abundance: plodding self-consciousness, simplistic deadpan irreverence, and passive-aggressive meaninglessness.
Dead Man has a great cast of fun character actors who pop in for interludes on Depp’s picaresque journey. Starting with Mitchum, who memorably poses in front of an imperious portrait of himself and monologues to a taxidermied bear, there are also quick looks at Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Mili Avatal, Gabriel Byrne, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, and Jared Harris. Gary Farmer does a nice job of balancing Depp’s blankness as his misfit Native American guide. It would’ve been nice to see what that cast could do with actual material rather than random wilderness hijinks. Neil Young’s score tries to paper over the Jarmuschian emptiness with monotonous stuttering twangs, but doesn’t blossom into a tune until the end credits roll, which is more than I can say about the rest of Dead Man.