Film review: Dead Man

Published: Tuesday, April 26 2005 3:43 p.m. MDT

Johnny Depp stars in this simple story of an unassuming young man who finds himself caught up in extraordinary events over which he has no control.

At first glance, that description seems to fit Depp's '95 flick "Nick of Time" as much as "Dead Man" - but "Dead Man" is different . . . to say the least.

Played out in an easygoing, ambling manner, with stark black-and-white cinematography that gives a lift to its matter-of-fact, natural, yet quirky style, the film contains many startling visual moments and a few terrific performances.

And it's nice to have a movie during the summer that amiably moves the audience along, instead of pushing it at breakneck speed.

But "Dead Man" is also a Western, and anytime you have a genre film conceived by someone like maverick writer-director Jim Jarmusch, you should expect the unexpected.

In this case, however, what Jarmusch delivers is truly unex pected. "Dead Man" is surprisingly bland. And it becomes more dull - and more grotesque - as it moves along.

Depp stars as William Blake, a mild-mannered accountant from Cleveland who heads West in the late 1800s, where he inadvertently becomes a hunted outlaw with a killer reputation.

That's about it for plot, though there are subplots galore.

The opening sequence is one of the more striking, as Blake sits quietly during his long train ride West, obviously somewhat nervous. Through a series of blackouts, we observe a variety of weird characters who surround him, and they change as often as the passing scenery we see through the train's windows. (Everytime Blake nods off, then awakens, someone new is sitting across from him.)

When he arrives in the Western town of Machine, Blake heads straight for Dickinson Metalworks, where he has been promised employment. But when he gets there, he discovers the job has already been filled.

In despair, Blake spends the last of his cash on liquor and is taken in for the night by a lovely young woman he meets in the saloon. This leads to a killing, and though it was committed in self-defense, Blake is forced to hit the road.

As the film progresses, Blake finds himself hounded by both the law and vicious bounty hunters. He also takes up with another dis-enfranchised character, an American Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who was educated in England and who believes that Blake embodies the spirit of the famous dead poet William Blake.

Farmer steals the show here, though he does get competition from a number of players in smaller roles - chiefly Robert Mit-chum, as an irascible tycoon, Lance Henriksen and Michael Wincott as a bickering pair of mismatched gunfighters and Iggy Pop as a cross-dressing mountain man.

Filmmaker Jarmusch, best known for the much-better "Mystery Train" and "Night On Earth," among others, allows the excesses in "Dead Man" to get out of hand to the point that they become distracting - especially the gore. He's at his best when he simply allows the oddball dialogue to move things along, or when his camera speaks with effective visuals, punctuated by silence. (There is also a spare, offbeat guitar score by Neil Young, which embellishes the action - such as it is - quite nicely.)

As you may surmise, "Dead Man" is not a movie to see for its narrative strength. This is a film that relies heavily on mood. And as such, it's a matter of taste. Fans of Jarmusch may want to boost the two-star rating a notch, but the unconverted are not likely to embrace this one.

"Dead Man" is rated R for violence and gore, sex and nudity, profanity, vulgarity and drugs (peyote).

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