AN ENGROSSING TALE well told, but still less than the sum of its parts. On paper it is genius: a black-and-white spirit quest led by Jonny Depp, a Cleveland account named William Blake, featuring cameos from Crispin Glover, Gabriel Byrne, Lance Henriksen, Alfred Molina, William Hurt, Billy Bob Thorton, Iggy Pop, and Robert Mitchum (at this point an aged and hoary lion), with a soundtrack composed and performed by Neil Young on solo guitar. But the result is largely fruitless and achieves little more than wandering from beginning to end without getting stuck in an impassable bog.
The entire film occurs through a procession of fades, with each vignette functioning almost like a visual poem, creating an atmosphere that tells a story altogether instead of a direct progress from points A through Z. Given that most of it takes place from Blake’s perspective, this kind of dreamy miasma is often effective, but its impact begins to flag after the umpteenth episode begins with Depp blearily opening his eyes and struggling to ascertain his surroundings. Young’s score, meanwhile, is as immediately recognizable as the film, consisting almost exclusively of him, an electric guitar, some delay, and a (presumably) small tube amp driven to its limit. It begins boldly, drawing memorable themes out of a largely ambient framework, but like the film itself eventually begins to circle in on itself, treading over its goodwill.
To be sure, that road is interesting enough to keep one’s attention throughout. William Blake runs afoul of a frontiersman over his paramour and is the only one to escape alive. Out in the woods, wounded and slightly delirious, he meets a Native American who calls himself Nobody and mistakes this Blake for the British Christian mystic-cum-poet. Nobody doesn’t really do much to heal Blake, claiming that it is impossible, and then benevolently ushers him across land, rock, river, and sea, into oblivion. The arc is a classical one: the name Nobody invokes the Odyssey, of course, but his role is closer to that of Virgil in Dante’s ‘Inferno’, albeit much less well-informed. Other passages in the film—the lethal encounter with the three campers, for instance—are reminiscent of the lighthearted but trenchant interludes found in Shakespeare. The medium and methodology of the film are distinctly 90s art-house, and its empty conclusion presaged the do-nothing existentialism of the new millennium. It is a hodgepodge, and a patient one for as much ground as it intends to cover, but for all its self-assurance can’t plumb any real depths. At least not insofar as a standalone tale. In that regard it actually functions better as a comedy. Depp’s halfhearted protests against all the mayhem around him, the bounty hunters’ destructive banter, and various quietly absurd scenarios are all neatly juggled.
‘Dead Man’ really becomes relevant when put into context—how does the Western genre remain relevant in a post-John Wayne world, where moviegoers are skeptical of black vs. white hat moralizing and the whizz-bang of cowboys an injuns has lost out to space combat and cyberkinetic apocalypses? So despite its ambivalent content, the narrative boldness of ‘Dead Man’ almost certainly played an essential part in reshaping modern westerns. The glorious ‘The Proposition’, for instance, seems to use ‘Dead Man’ as a plot template, whereas the Coen Brothers’ ‘True Grit’ or even ‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’ owe much of their atmosphere of frontier mythology to ‘Dead Man’. In this film, all conventions are turned inside out and lumped back together again in a new creation. It may not function as the old one did, but is it not something new to look upon?