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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.85:1
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 58:10)
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital Stereo
  Subtitles
  • None
  Extras
  • Deleted scenes
  • 1 Theatrical trailer
  • 3 Cast/crew biographies - Jim Jarmusch, Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer
  • 1 Music video - 'Dead Man Theme' by Neil Young
  • Outtakes

Dead Man

Siren/Shock Records . R4 . COLOR . 122 mins . R . PAL

  Feature
Contract

Not to be confused with Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking - which was released in the same year - Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 feature film Dead Man represented a slight deviation from the nature of his previous efforts. Although all of his cinematic works share the unifying theme of how foreigners’ perceive the microcosm of American culture (1989’s Mystery Train featured an intertwining trilogy of stories set inside a Memphis hotel, haunted by the spirit of Elvis Presley), Jarmusch’s tales tend to occur within urban environments.

Dead Man is somewhat distinctive from Jarmusch’s other films, due mainly to the deliberate decision to locate its story in the American Wild West, during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Jarmusch’s innovative style of film-making can be reflected in his tenacious desire to become an unique voice in the realm of independent cinema when, at the age of seventeen, he moved from Akron, Ohio to New York City. Graduating from Columbia University with a Bachelor of Arts in English, Jarmusch was accepted - without any prior film experience - into the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. He would also gain valuable knowledge from his film study classes conducted at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.

After working as an assistant on Nicholas Ray's and Wim Wenders’ Lightning Over Water, Jarmusch produced his first feature, 1980’s Permanent Vocation - a student project, filmed with a meagre budget of $15,000. However, it was his collaboration with German producer Otto Grockenberger that provided Jarmusch with the opportunity to launch himself into an illustrious directorial career.

With the promise of complete artistic control, Jarmusch crafted and unleashed upon an unsuspecting public Stranger Than Paradise - a feature expanded from a thirty-minute short made two years earlier, structured around the Screaming Jay Hawkins’ classic, “I Put A Spell On You.” Released to critical acclaim in 1984, Stranger Than Paradise received several international award nominations, earning the Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was named Best Picture of the year by the National Society of Film Critics.

During the subsequent years following his triumph at Cannes - which established him as a darling of the independent cinema circuit - Jarmusch has reinforced his reputation as an innovative cinematic artist with 1986’s Down by Law, the aforementioned Mystery Train, and 1991’s Night on Earth, which is often acknowledged as his most accessible film to date.

Jarmusch’s most enigmatic and poetic work, Dead Man premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on 26 May 1995, where it was nominated for - but did not receive - the Palme D’Or. However, the film was the recipient of the European Film Awards’ 1996 Five Continents Award for Best Director and, perhaps more significantly, earned the New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Cinematography (Robby Muller). Following the release of Dead Man, Jarmusch returned to the familiar territory of his surreal urban mythologies with 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

"Every night and every morn, some to Misery are born. Every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight. "

Dead Man’s unconventional story focuses on William Blake (Johnny Depp in a wonderfully restrained performance), an accountant traveling West from Cleveland, Ohio in response to a promised position at the Dickinson Metal Works in the industrial township of Machine. During his seemingly interminable train journey - which is financed from the money he has received from the death of his parents - Blake is confronted by the train’s manic stoker (Crispin Glover), who warns the accountant that only death awaits him. In a curious monologue, the stoker suggests that Blake’s fate is pre-destined.

Blake soon arrives at his destination - the stagnant and post-apocalyptic frontier town of Machine. To the young arrival, it is a decadent, lawless community, devoid of human compassion and steeped in cold-blooded ruthlessness. Hand-made coffins line the mortician’s emporium; sun-bleached buffalo skulls are featured on display in another store; tethered horses urinate in the street; and a young prostitute is forced to fellate a man at gunpoint.

Upon entering the office of the Dickinson Metal Works, Blake presents his job application to John Scholfield (John Hurt), the firm’s administrative officer, who promptly informs Blake that his position has been filled by another accountant. Ignoring Blake’s futile attempts at reason, Scholfield taunts him, suggesting that if he truly desires the position, then he should take his complaint to John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in his last screen role), the Metal Work’s proprietor.

However, Dickinson’s response to Blake’s circumstance is uncharitable, to say the least; Blake is forced out of the manager’s office at gunpoint. Penniless and desperate, Blake wanders about Machine well into the night where he meets Thel Russel (Mili Avital), a prostitute, who feels sympathy for the dejected newcomer. However, fate intervenes with the appearance of Charles ‘Charlie’ Ludlow Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne), the son of John Dickinson; due to a tragic misunderstanding, Blake is involved in a gunfight which results in Charlie’s death.

Seething with vengeful rage, Dickinson assembles a trio of the frontier’s finest killers - Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), a pathological cannibal; Conway Twill (Michael Wincott), a skilled bounty hunter who talks incessantly and sleeps with a teddy bear; and Johnny “The Kid” Pickett (Eugene Byrd), a fourteen-year old Negro boy and cold-blooded sociopath - to apprehend Blake, dead or alive.

Falsely accused as a cowardly murderer and relentlessly pursued, Blake journeys deeper in the unforgiving badlands on a personal and spiritual odyssey that will radically transform him. Weary and half-starved, he soon finds an uneasy alliance with Nobody (Gary Farmer), an native American Indian, who believes that Blake is actually the reincarnation of his namesake - the late English inventor and poet, William Blake.

  Video
Contract

Dead Man is presented in its original 1.85:1 screen aspect ratio, and is not anamorphic.

Blacks are absolutely solid and provide great depth; shadow detail, too, is extremely good. Details are sharp, allowing for some truly excellent definition - for instance, during Blake’s fateful train ride to Machine, the pores on Depp’s cheeks can be plainly seen. As Dead Man is filmed in glorious black-and-white, there are no issues concerning colour-bleeding or oversaturation.

Minor grain is often present, but this can be attributed to either the stock that Jarmusch used for this film or conditions associated with outdoor filming. However, there are two close-up shots involving Depp as he reclines against a tree while Farmer consumes a peyote button; these quick shots are extremely grainy, but these can be discounted as they merely represent Nobody’s drug-distorted perspective of Blake, moments before the former accountant transforms into a grinning skull. Despite this, at no time did I feel that the grain was intrusive.

Throughout the film, slight compression artefacts - consisting of minor macro-blocking - were detected, occurring during the film’s numerous black transitional screens. In these instances, they are minute and their impact on the viewing experience is negligible; their presence will certainly be diminished on a standard size screen. Again, these small artefacts proved not to be a distraction.

There is what appears to be a mastering flaw occurring five minutes and thirty-four seconds into the film, consisting of a black bar approximately two inches wide. Manifesting itself for one second at the top of the letterbox screen, it effectively shears off a couple of inches; although brief, this incident is slightly disconcerting.

The layer transition occurs at 58:10, during a black transitional screen. Noticeable only because the audio track - featuring a rain storm - pauses momentarily, the change is somewhat jarring. However, I did not consider the change to be disruptive to the film’s narrative.

  Audio
Contract

There is only one audio selection available, that of the English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track.

Dialogue is firmly confined to the centre speaker and is always clear and easy to understand, with the possible exception of Michael Wincott. On a few occasions, I found his speech to be slightly obscured; however, this can be attributed to the actor’s vocal delivery, and is not indicative of the transfer itself. Sound, too, is very clear. I did not detect any audible distortion or audio anomalies.

Dead Man was viewed via the Dolby Pro-Logic decoder. Although the film’s narrative is primarily driven by dialogue in its first half, it slowly becomes more cerebral in its latter portion, enabling the rear surrounds to provide some surprisingly effective ambiance. Of particular note are the moments featuring Blake’s train journey to Machine, his subsequent walk through its derelict main street, and the numerous nocturnal scenes which populate the film.

In these instances, the rear soundstage delivers a good amount of ambient noise and subtle re-directed bass to support the industrial machinations of the locomotive’s engine and Machine’s refineries. During the film’s campfire sequences, the sounds of crickets, owls, and distant howls of coyotes are suitably atmospheric.

Undoubtedly, the most memorable aspect of Dead Man’s audio presentation is Neil Young’s melancholic electric guitar score. An improvised melodic series of chords which are played with different strains and variations, Young’s contribution to the film’s mood is invaluable in establishing its sense of irony and surrealism. In these instances, the rear surrounds are featured quite predominately.

  Extras
Contract

The AV Channel have packaged Dead Man with several additional features.

Theatrical trailer: Presented in a 1.85:1 screen aspect ratio and featuring Dolby Digital 2.0, this trailer has a length of 2 minutes and 34 seconds.

Music Video: Featuring Neil Young’s Dead Man theme, this extra is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 with a 1.85:1 screen aspect ratio. Set to a montage of scenes from the film, it has a running time of 3 minutes and 30 seconds.

Out-Takes and Deleted Scenes: Running for a total of 16 minutes and 21 seconds, this section contains a series of out-takes featuring Robert Mitchum and seven deleted scenes. Presented in a 1.85:1 screen aspect ratio and Dolby Digital 2.0, they are grouped together and can not be selected individually. Although interesting, the collection here are mainly extensions of the scenes used in the final cut or alternative takes.

Biographies: Quite informative, this 11 page text-based feature consists of profiles on Dead Man’s director Jim Jarmusch, and cast members Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer. Most of the information, though, seems to have been lifted directly from the Internet Movie Database.

  Overall  
Contract

As with all of Jarmusch’s films, Dead Man is wildly unconventional and is significantly more measured and dream-like than any of his previous works. There are several undercurrent reasons for this - most obviously, the fact that it is filmed in sumptuous black-and-white (which succeeds in lending Dead Man a decidedly eerie feel), and the subliminal inclusions of references to the 18th century poet, William Blake, and his literature.

For example, Mili Avital’s prostitute Thel has her name derived from William Blake’s overtly sexual poem, “The Book of Thel”; an allusion is made to the poet’s “Proverbs of Hell” when Depp’s Blake awakens to notice that a tree has been cleaved by lightning - yet another reference to the line: “A fool sees not the same tree as a wise man sees.” Indeed, other notable sources that are quoted within the film are the poems, “The Everlasting Gospel” and “Auguries of Innocence.”

Jarmusch’s direction is cool and measured, though some cynics would deem it slow and ponderous. However, he infuses each scene with tangible atmosphere that is both mesmerising and seductive; the only other director I can mention off-hand that can accomplish such a feat is Stanley Kubrick.

Depp’s performance in Dead Man is masterful, and succeeded in earning him the reputation he now enjoys as a serious dramatic actor. Certainly, he has created some truly memorable roles - for instance, films such as Edward Scissorhands and Benny and Joon - but his riveting portrayal as William Blake proved to be crucial turning point in his career. Farmer’s supporting role as the banished Nobody is also superb; he effortlessly blends wry humour and warm humanity in a part which saw him nominated for Best Supporting Male at the 1997 International Spirit Awards.

Challenging and thought-provoking, Dead Man - while being one of Jarmusch’s most inaccessible films - is, without a doubt, his most fascinating to date.


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      And I quote...
    "...A surreal Western which, under the measured poise of director Jim Jarmusch, weilds a captivating, dream-like fascination..."
    - Shaun Bennett
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Panasonic SC-HT80
    • TV:
          Panasonic TX-43P15 109cm Rear Projection
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
          standard s-video
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