There are some movies that--if they are available on video--practically demand to be viewed late at night. They have an exotic, otherworldly quality that's only enhanced by fighting unconsciousness.
Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man fits perfectly in this category. It is, in fact, one of the best sleepy time movies of the last twenty years. Of course, looking at it on paper, one might just assume its excellence. Johnny Depp, Lance Henriksen, and screen legend Robert Mitchum in a Jarmusch Western with music by Neil Young? What could go wrong.
But plenty could have, and films that look good on paper don't always pan out. I'd posit the Spielberg remake of War of the Worlds as an example. But this is an example of a director planning well, then going on to improvise well.
The method of working is similar to eighties films Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law. You still see edits from stillness to silence, where of course the usual purpose of editing is to cut from one action to another. And Jarmusch still has a skill and preference for working in black and white. The monochrome palette does not make Dead Man look or feel like an old movie, much less an old Western. For one thing only a black teenage hitman (Eugene Byrd) and a corrupt missionary (Alfred Molina) seen near the end have short hair. But the black and white does create an atmosphere of oldness. This isn't a new frontier, it's a world falling apart before your eyes.
Depp is an orphan from Cleveland named William Blake. After a long train ride and a surreal conversation with soot-covered Crispin Glover, he arrives in the town of Machine to claim an accounting job at Dickinson Metalworks. Mr Dickinson is played by Mitchum as a man too accustomed to being the emperor of his own little world to be anything else. It's a surprise to no one but Blake when Dickinson retracts the offer and kicks Blake out. After that, Blake spends his last few coins on a bottle of rotgut.
That is the essence of the movie. Blake has no money. He has no real prospects of making more. This world, it seems, is done with him.
The plot proper starts when he spends the night with a pretty young woman (Mili Avital) transitioning from a life of prostitution. In the morning, her old boyfriend shows up, making a show of sad graciousness in Gabriel Byrne's best Southern accent. Then he takes a gun and shoots at either Blake or lover Thel. He hits both of them, her fatally. Blake takes Thel's own sidearm and--with some realistic initial misses--kills the intruder. Worst luck, he happens to be Dickinson's son.
Dickinson then hires a trio of killers, played by Henriksen, Byrd, and Michael Wincott (much less glam than he was in The Crow.) Of these, only Henriksen's Cole seems suited to the life, and he's more Jeffrey Dahmer than Billy the Kid. You just know that his cavalry uniform was taken off a soldier he killed, and probably ate.
Blake himself escapes into the wilderness on a horse he stole from the younger Dickinson, said horse possibly being the real reason for the contract. His life is saved--or more accurately, given a brief extension--by the outcast Indian Nobody, played by Gary Farmer. Their relationship forms the heart of the film. Nobody reveres him as a second coming of the other William Blake, but also puts him through hoops. Where Dances With Wolves seemed to suggest that a worthy white man could walk away and become a very fair Indian, nothing like that happens here. Blake learns, grows, changes, but he doesn't become anything but... well, look again at the title.
And so the movie comes full circle, ending in a scene that recalls the seemingly nonsensical speech given by the fireman. Blake comes to a kind of peace, maybe. To view it is to live in a breathless balance between comedy and tragedy.