Dead Man (1995)

dead man

“Do you have any tobacco?”

The Scoop: 1995 R, directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer

Summary Capsule: Wimpy Johnny Depp, through a series of unfortunate events and a Native American friend, becomes Legendary Johnny Depp.

Heather’s rating: A mind-boggling exercise in just how boring a movie can be without being a bad movie.

Heather’s review: I guess I should have listened to the gut feeling I had when I saw that the movie’s official title is Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Not that I had any idea who JJ was before I saw this movie.  It has simply been my experience that when a director puts his name in front of a movie’s title, it’s his subtle way of saying that his ego has swollen to such proportions as to dwarf the film’s actors, plot, characters, and meaning. What the audience is left with is usually a confusing, trying-to-hard-to-be-avante-garde bore-fest.

I wouldn’t say that completely describes what we get with Dead Man, but it comes close. This is a beautifully shot film, done all in black and white, with some interesting and powerful images; it sports a great cast, great message and a really cool plot. Too bad that the movie’s so freaking boring.

With all of the talented names I saw in the opening credits I got the kind of build up and subsequent letdown reserved for kids who rush downstairs on Christmas day to find socks under the tree.  Jarmusch gave the actors little dialogue to work with, and much of what he did give was recitation of poetry. ‘Cause that’s always fun.

JJ dubs his film an “acid western”, which confuses me. Did he mean you’d best understand it while on acid? Was he on acid when he shot it? Is the film supposed to be especially sour-tasting and corrosive to metals?

Silly genre title aside, there’s a great story to be told here, though you’ll probably need a Ludovico Technique apparatus and a case of Red Bull to get you through it.

Depp plays a man who just lost his parents  and moves from Cleveland to a small town in the West, carrying only a few possessions and the promise of a job waiting for him. When he gets there he’s told through the eloquent use of gun-to-face that the job is no longer his. Later that night he meets a beautiful woman named Thel whose spurned lover bursts in on them in bed.  Thel is killed when she jumps in front of William (Depp) to shield him and William ends up having to shoot the man in self defense and flee town on a stolen pinto.

This exchange earns him a few bullets in the torso and  the word “Wanted” attached to his name, as the man he killed was the son of the well-to-do company owner who was supposed to hire William. Also, that horse was his and there’s no way you can kill a man’s son and steal his horse without a bounty being placed on your head . William passes out in the forest and is saved and befriended by a Native named Nobody (Farmer) who tells him that, because he took a bullet too close to the heart to be extracted, he’s a walking dead man. Nobody resolves to take William to the Pacific Ocean to be sent off on his “spirit journey” (a nicer way of saying he’s gonna leave his body in a canoe to rot).

With Nobody’s help William slowly turns into something that he and the audience would have never guessed he could be. He becomes a skilled marksman, has meaningful spirit visions, and kills more and more men out of necessity as the bounty for him becomes higher and higher. He becomes a legend of the West, after which he is promptly sent out on the Pacific in a canoe.

The movie looked great, sounded great (ish..I’ll get to that later) had a great cast and very good message, but in the end this was murder to sit through. My husband, who watched it with me, asked me a couple of days later if Depp said anything during the film. That’s how memorable the performances and dialogue are. The whole thing slogs along with little action, little interaction, and the same song playing the entire 2 hours. It’s a great song, done by Neil Young, but just put one song on for two hours straight and you’ll see perfectly why this begins to get irritating.

There’s a whole thread on IMDB’s Dead Man forum full of people who say they fell asleep, but are quick to blame that on the “transcendent, hypnotic atmosphere” of the film. Guys, that’s just goofy denial words for “I was bored to sleep, but don’t want to admit it because people will say I just didn’t get it.”

I’m making no such denials. I fell asleep the first time and fought hard not to on the second go ’round. It’s going to have you mentally screaming at the halfway point, when you look down at the timer and see you still have an hour to go, but deep down it’s a film worth seeing if you have plenty of caffeine on hand.

“So, what would you say is the ballistic resistence of that corset you’re wearing?”


  • This film has been praised for its portrayal of Native American culture.
  • Gary Farmer appeared in a cameo as Nobody for Jarmusch’s later film Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai

Groovy Quotes:

Nobody: That weapon will replace your tongue. You will learn to speak through it. And your poetry will now be written with blood.

Marvin (Older Marshall): You William Blake?
William Blake: Yes, I am. Do you know my poetry?

William Blake: I came here to talk about my job.
John Dickinson: The only job you’re goin’ to get is pushing up daisies from a pine box.

William Blake: Do you still have my eyeglasses?
Nobody: No, I traded them. Do you have any tobacco?
William Blake: No, I traded it.
Nobody: For what?
William Blake: I’m not telling.
Nobody: Liar.
William Blake: Thief.

If You Liked This Movie, Try These:

  • Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai
  • Once Upon A Time In The West
  • The Libertine

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