A Film by Jim Jarusch

When you go to the vid store to check out this peculiar 1995 flick—and you should—you’ll probably find it in "Westerns." It doesn’t belong there.

Dead Man is the story of William Blake (Johnny Depp), an accountant from Ohio who’s taken a train into the deep heart of the unsettled American West, where a factory job supposedly awaits him in the hellish frontier town of Machine. In the first few moments of the film, an amazing odyssey unfolds, a transformation of the landscape and of the passengers that simply has to evoke the "Hell Bound Train." As the locomotive steams into uncharted, hostile territory, Depp has a conversation with the engineer (Crispin Glover) a man stained black with coal tar, a strange man who asks uncomfortable, penetrating questions.

So even before the credits roll, director Jim Jarusch has introduced us to the devil himself, he’s told us we’re embarking on a spiritual journey, and he’s made it clear that our protagonist is&ldots;well, a dead man. All that’s left is for the story to unfold before Jarusch’s brooding camera. Instead of finding a job in Machine, William Blake is chased out of the factory by the owner, a gun-toting Robert Mitchum. Having shot his wad on his ticket, he’s high and dry—but not for long. He blows his last two bits on a bottle of hooch and ends up in bed with the Wrong Girl. Her boyfriend busts in (another appearance by Gabriel Byrne) and blood is spilled. Byrne’s dead, the girl’s dead, and William Blake is pretty much dead, too, with a bullet lodged next to his heart.

He stumbles out of town, where he’s found by a fat Indian with impeccable English who calls himself Nobody (Gary Farmer, in a brilliant performance). Nobody tells this "stupid fucking white man" that the bullet cannot be removed and will soon kill him. But when Nobody learns that his new companion is named William Blake, his attitude changes. This can only be the William Blake, the visionary English poet who wrote of heaven, hell and the spirit. Nobody’s a big fan, you see.

So Nobody vows to accompany William Blake, visionary English Poet and unemployed Ohio accountant, on a spirit quest to the Pacific Coast. There he will see the dead man off on his great journey across the water. Along the way, they’ll be pursued by Robert Mitchum’s hired killers, most notably a cannibalistic Lance Henriksen. And William Blake will become a killer himself, an angel of death, a gunslinger of prodigious talent It’s poetry in motion.

By the time this transformation is complete, with William Blake embarked upon his journey across the great water, you’ll have long since forgotten you’re watching a "Western." Like any truly great Western—or sf, or horror, or mystery—this movie transcends its own genre. It’s not by chance that our Dead Man is named for a visionary poet, that his guide to next world is an outcast pagan, or that his journey begins in an industrial armpit named Machine. Every time you watch this movie, the symbology becomes more taut, the story more resonant.

Dead Man a tremendous cinematic accomplishment, made all the more impressive by Jarush’s quirky direction, powerful performances by Farmer and Depp, excellent cameos by Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop and John Hurt, and a raw soundtrack by Neil Young. This is the Good Stuff.

Dante Allighieri meets the High Plains Drifter.

Sullydog Approves.

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