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Dead Man – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

Jim Jarmusch is one of my favorite directors, and The Criterion Collection has seen fit to treat me with a release of Dead Man, his offbeat western from 1995, starring Johnny Depp. Featuring a strong and very Jarmusch supporting cast, beautiful black and white cinematography, and an improvised electric guitar score by Neil Young, Dead Man is the epitome of 90s indie film and one of Jarmusch’s best works as a director. Given my love for 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive and the declaration of Paterson as my favorite film of 2016, Jarmusch has not stopped entertaining me, so I was thrilled to take in a spectacular new release for his acid western.

Film:

Set in the American West during the 19th century, Depp stars as William Blake, an accountant from Cleveland, Ohio, who has just ridden into town using all the money he’s had. Unfortunately, the position Blake had traveled across the country for has been filled, so he’s left without any prospects. Things take a violent turn when Blake is wounded, following his efforts to hold off an ex-boyfriend of a prostitute.

From there, Blake flees town on a stolen horse, only to awake in the care of a large Native American outcast named Nobody (Gary Farmer). While Nobody does enough to keep Blake alive, despite slowly dying from a bullet close to his heart, bounty hunters are dispatched to bring Blake back to town, dead or alive.

Sketching out the plot of this film, or almost any Jarmusch, is practically beside the point. While there is a narrative and character arc to what takes place, Dead Man mainly focuses on the existential wasteland these characters are all a part of. As Jarmusch’s only period film, a western setting is perfect for the understanding one has when dealing with the sort of ideas, visuals, and very dry humor Jarmusch tends to go for.

Keeping the western aspect in mind, while we have seen revisionist westerns tell very specific stories about characters approaching the genre’s stylings in a post-modern or reflective way, Dead Man falls into a different category. The film is a psychedelic western or acid western, which essentially means grabbing onto metaphorical ideas and balancing that with cultural perceptions of the time in which the film is made. Understandably, the subgenre emerged during the 60s, when the counterculture was taking hold, but Jarmusch is something of a proto-hipster, and it makes perfect sense that he would be one to go that route for his attempt at this kind of film.

It’s all important to know, as the film is not going to hold anyone’s hand. While there is a decipherable rhythm to the proceedings, it’s also a movie that opens with Crispin Glover giving a random monologue, following lots of shots of Depp staring out the window of a train to observe the scenery. Following the inciting incident, the rest of the film has an episodic approach to the events that occur, allowing us to enjoy the work of various players who show up for a scene or two. In all of this, Depp, who is excellent here, is only descending further into his dire state. While forming a bond with Nobody, he’s also throwing away all that he was, which includes what it means to be a decent, non-violent person.

Plenty of allusions are to be found and considered as Dead Man moves through its deliberately-paced two-hour runtime. The poetry of the actual William Blake comes up plenty, and the names of many of these characters certainly have ways of addressing various western, literature, and musical references. There are also plenty of thematic comparisons to make to authors ranging from McCarthy to Kafka, which only helps to either intrigue or alienate those ready to go with the strange vision of this film.

One can also look to the film for its careful consideration of how to portray Native Americans. Jarmusch may admire the work of John Ford, but he wanted to make a western that truly understands Native American culture, limited as its presence may be. It speaks well to the film, as this white director has come far in his film career, but worked to avoid unneeded controversy by committing to ideas fully. Good thing Farmer is so game to play an excellent companion/spiritual guide to Depp.

As far as this cast goes, what a terrific set of actors. Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thorton, Gabriel Byrne, Mili Avital, John Hurt, Jared Harris, Alfred Molina and Robert Mitchum (his final film role) all show up and leave a genuine mark. For a small feature that assuredly never approached mass commercial appeal, a lot of great actors were happy to dig into the vibe of this feature and only add to its mystique. Speaking of which, the great Neil Young provides an incredible score that further informs the tone of what is laid out in front of us.

In all of this, many have wondered what it is that Dead Man is trying to say. It’s not up to me to detail the intentions, but what I know is just how committed this film is to presenting what is on display. With its monochrome cinematography by Robby Muller that could practically allow Dead Man to play as a silent film if so desired, there are plenty of ways to read into this visual experience. The emphasis on poetry and Jarmusch’s status as a poet-turned-filmmaker, mean letting the atmosphere take you over while allowing you to consider more of what’s been seen after the fact. In the moment, you get an oddball western full of intriguing characters. This was enough to deliver a 90s classic, and the film continues to work as a unique take on the genre as a whole.

 


Video:

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Transfer: Per the description: This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35mm original negative at Roundabout Entertainment in Burbank, California. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Digital Visions Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management.

Clarity/Detail: Honestly, much like Night of the Living Dead, there’s a great joy in seeing a black and white film look as good as this. While those films are nearly 30 years apart, Dead Man has plenty going for it, beyond just being a more recent film. Jarmusch is exceptional when it comes to who he surrounds himself with to bring his visions to life, so this film has a real artfulness that has been harnessed well for this transfer. The detail level on the characters is wonderful to take in, as one can observe so many things about the production design and costumes for a film that couldn’t have had much of a budge to work with.

Depth: Thanks to the use of forest locations and various sets, you get a great sense of dimensionality throughout this feature. None of the characters ever appear to be flat in any way, and proper spacing allows for a great presentation in this respect.

Black Levels: The black levels are wonderful here. Thanks to fantastic contrast levels, there’s an excellent realization of how well the black levels work on a high-quality level. Deep black levels and no sign of crush, so get ready for that.
Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: Character’s facial textures look great here. The presentation does an excellent job showing off all of these characters, whether in close-up or at a middle distance.

Noise/Artifacts: With so much work to deliver a remarkable new transfer of this film, there is nothing to complain about here. There is a consistent level of grain that is to be expected, but this film is spotless.

 

Audio:

Audio Format(s): English 2.0 DTS-HD

Subtitles: English

Transfer: Per the description: The original 2.0 surround soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm magnetic tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX. Please be sure to enable Dolby Pro Logic decoding on your receiver to properly play the Dolby 2.0 surround soundtrack.

Dynamics: The lossless treatment allows for a great audio track that does particularly well when it comes to Young’s score. With no distracting elements, there’s plenty to enjoy in this well-handled remaster.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone sounds clear.

 

Extras:

This is a loaded release for Jarmusch fans, as the Blu-ray features many extras focused on the film, the inspirations behind it, the music and Jarmusch himself. It is sure to please those who have merely had a bland Miramax release all these years, waiting for more deserved respect for such a film as this.

Features Include:

  • Selected-scene Commentary with sound mixer Drew Kunin and production designer Bob Ziembicki – Without Jarmusch or a moderator, this track can be a bit on the dry side for those not as interested in some of what is being said, but there is interesting insight about how the film establishes what it’s going for through visuals and sound.
  • Q&A with Jim (HD, 47:42) – Jim Jarmusch sits down in New York and answers over 30 questions from fans. It’s merely an audio recording, but Jarmusch is an interesting enough personality for that not to matter all that much. You can also skip through the questions to access each one separately.
  • Gary Farmer (HD, 26:47) – Nobody himself provides a personal take on the film, his co-stars, Jarmusch and more. A great watch.
  • Reading Blake (HD, 7:30) – Alfred Molina, Iggy Pop, and Mili Avital read poems by William Blake over images from the film.
  • Deleted Scenes (SD, 15:00) – A bit on the rough side as far as visual quality, but neat to see some additional sequences that aren’t entirely essential to the film.
  • Neil Young (SD, 25:22) – A look at Young’s process of creating the score and performing it.
  • Music Video (SD, 3:31) – You can also change the audio track to here Johnny Depp read Blake’s poems over the footage in which the score appears as well.
  • Black and White in Color (HD, 0:51) – A slideshow of color pictures taken during production.
  • Trailer (HD, 2:37)
  • PLUS – Essays by film critic Amy Taubin and music journalist Ben Ratliff

 

 

Summary:

Dead Man is a terrific film from Jim Jarmusch and one that highlights what it is that has created his appeal, thanks to casting, tone, and other qualities. This Criterion Collection release does plenty of justice to the acid western, allowing for the best look ever at the film on home release, along with a wonderful remaster of the soundtrack featuring such an excellent score. There’s also a bevy of extras to take in, making this the ultimate release of the film for fans.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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