Question: When is a western not a western?
Answer: When it's written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, a filmmaker who seems incapable of cranking out a dull or conventional movie. His new picture, "Dead Man," is less an ordinary horse opera than a dreamlike meditation on life, death, and the value of friendship in a violent world.
Spectators at its first Cannes Film Festival screening mixed cheers and boos in their response, but some viewers sat in apparently puzzled silence as the strange, engrossing story came to its enigmatic end. It will be a hard sell in American multiplexes when Miramax Films opens it in the near future, probably after more showings on the festival circuit.
Jarmusch admirers should find it as fascinating as his previous pictures, however, especially since the only category it falls comfortably into is his own body of work. This includes such movies as "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Night on Earth," among others - offbeat excursions that invariably involve a sardonic sense of humor, a string of haunting images, and a journey through time and space with wandering characters who're as perplexed by their experiences as the audience watching them.
"Dead Man" stars the versatile Johnny Depp as a young accountant named William Blake, who rides the railroad from his native Cleveland to an end-of-the-line town where a new job supposedly awaits him.
The movie establishes its unsettling tone in the very first scene, as Blake copes with growing boredom, gazes at his inscrutable fellow travelers, and meets a trainman who talks of nothing but gloom and doom. Arriving at his destination, he promptly loses his hope of employment, has a night of romance with a woman he's just met, and blunders into a shootout with her belligerent boyfriend.
All of which is just an introduction to the main story, which finds Blake fleeing a trio of hired killers with a native American. His name is Nobody, and he's convinced that his new friend is the reincarnation of the great English poet William Blake, transported to the 19th-century West by some weird accident. Traveling ever farther from civilization, which is tenuous to begin with in frontier territory, Blake and Nobody have a series of adventures that are by turns comic, scary, and so bizarre that it's impossible to pin them down with an adjective or two.
The conclusion of their voyage is similarly hard to describe - at once poetic, melancholy, and mystical enough to have pleased the original Blake who may or may not inhabit our hero's inner self.
Nothing about "Dead Man," from its mournful title to its haunting electric-guitar music, is designed to coddle viewers with comfortingly familiar fluff. On the contrary, Jarmusch seems determined to shake us out of any complacency we may bring to the picture. He throws in occasional shots of starkly filmed sex or violence that deliberately upset what might otherwise have been an overly rarified tone. Even the cast represents an unusually diverse gallery of performers, from Hollywood professionals like Robert Mitchum and John Hurt to more unexpected faces like Indian actor Gary Farmer and rock-music maverick Iggy Pop.
These eclectic choices won't help "Dead Man" score an easy hit at the box office, although its more straightforward assets - such as Robby Muller's rich black-and-white cinematography, and Neil Young's atmospheric score - should boost the film's appeal to adventurous audiences.
"Dead Man" is certainly not perfect, but it's one of the most exciting pictures of the year for moviegoers who like a touch of the unexpected, even when revisiting a genre as old and familiar as the western. And the movie was a pleasure to encounter near the end of Cannes, where films were generally less lustrous than advance billing led attendees to expect.
The film may excite moviegoers who like the unexpected, even when revisiting a genre as familiar as the western.