Dead Man (1996; directed by Jim Jarmusch)

Jim Jarmusch and Johnny Depp are a match made in heaven, a director who likes to make movies about rather vacant hipsters, and the most passive (good) actor of his generation, but you wouldn't expect the movie they made together would be a Western. But it is, and a wonderful one. "Magical" is a word overused in describing movies, but this one deserves it. Jarmusch is perhaps the only director working today who could make really great silent films.

A mild-mannered accountant named William Blake (Depp) who comes across the country from Cleveland to the town of Machine, where he thinks he has a job waiting. By the time he makes it across the country by train the job is gone, his money is gone, and before he figures out what to do next he's committed one murder and been accused of a second. As he escapes, he's shot (not for the last time), and then he's found and nursed by an Indian named Nobody, who thinks he's the poet William Blake (who Depp's character has apparently never heard of).

The film is both funny and thought-provoking, and great to look at (in black and white). People like the makers of "Smoke" try to copy Jarmusch's style (his early style, he's gone way beyond that now), but what they miss is the magic, the power of images. The film has some great dialogue, but many scenes have few or no words. This is kind of a relief, since some low-budget filmmakers seem to rely mostly on chatter to replace expensive location shoots and special effects, and chatter, no matter how clever, can become just as wearying as explosions.

Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer are good as William Blake and Nobody, and all sorts of people (from Robert Mitchum to Iggy Pop) show up in smaller roles, mostly to very good effect. The video box at Blockbuster reported "one explicit sex scene" but there isn't one (so don't rent it on that basis).

I'm not sure if Johnny Depp is "a great actor," but he's very good, and he chooses more interesting movies to be in than any other actor of his generation. In addition to this one, I enthusiastically recommend Ed Wood, Donnie Brasco, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As I write this, he's making Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow with Christina Ricci. I can't wait.

Also Recommended:

By Jim Jarmusch: Everything, but especially Down by Law


Best of 1999 / Best of the Decade

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