Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man begins with Johnny Depp sitting on a train. We’re in the 19th century, and Depp, wearing oval spectacles and his usual gaze of beatific blankness, stares at the other passengers, who stare back at him like symbolic accusers out of Bergman, Fellini, Stardust Memories; then he looks out the window, and then at a new set of passengers. After a few minutes, Crispin Glover, the court jester of hipster weirdness, shows up to deliver a monologue about what it’s like to lie down in a boat and watch scenery that looks as if it isn’t moving. He might just as well be describing Dead Man. The film has barely started, and already we can tell what we’re in for — two hours of metaphysical drift.
Dead Man turns out to be a picaresque art Western, with Depp, as a naif-turned-outlaw named William Blake (that’s right, William Blake), roaming a landscape of smirky, violent absurdism. Blake arrives in a town called Machine to begin his job as an accountant. Before he knows it, he has killed a man and is stumbling away with a bullet in his chest, only to be saved by a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer), who speaks in an ironic version of the kind of honest-Injun homilies they used to lampoon on The Carol Burnett Show. This might be Jarmusch’s ultimate postmodern joke: getting us to laugh, uncomfortably, at the teasing cliche-ness of his satire, even as he flirts with politically incorrect naughtiness.
Blake and Nobody meander through a wilderness as shrubby and nondescript as a ’50s B horror movie, all to the accompaniment of an echoey Neil Young guitar score that sounds like something Wayne Campbell made up in his basement. Periodically, the barrenness is interrupted by ”cool” cult stars (Iggy Pop, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott — are my eyes deceiving me or is Steve Buscemi not in this movie?), who appear as bounty hunters and criminal goons. Dead Man fancies itself a mystical poem of mortality; Depp, who spends the movie in glassy-eyed affectless mode, might be staring at a mirage of his own afterlife. Yet the film’s meandering quirkiness is, finally, a big bore, the desperate ploy of a filmmaker who is threatening to vanish down the rabbit hole of his avant-chic attitudes. Back in 1984, the jokey, dilapidated ennui of Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise expressed the go-nowhere spirit of a more frazzled era; in a sense, it was the last true movie of the ’70s. But that rhythm now seems the hollowest of affectations. Like it or not, the world got moving again, and it’s time Jim Jarmusch did too. C-