Moving further and further in Jim Jarmusch’s career, the distinct periods in his life can pretty easily be seen. Over the director and writer’s first films, which spanned the eighties, there was a relatively calm feel to his work. Visually, each maintained at least some semblance of relation to his oeuvre, but more importantly, that decade allowed Jarmusch to explore and define themes he’d work with for the rest of his career.
Ending the decade with Mystery Train also marked Jarmusch’s slight move towards pop culture familiarity. He didn’t and probably won’t ever achieve the status that Tarrantino or other of his descendents earned, but it probably doesn’t matter. With his next foray into storytelling being set all around the world, it’s not too shocking that 1995’s Dead Man arrived as perhaps the most American of Jarmusch’s tales.
The foreigners are actually the Americans in this particular setting. But where the film takes place is just as important as who’s on the screen. The forest, where Johnny Depp’s character William Blake evades and pursues all at once, surrounds every inch of humanity displayed over Dead Man’s two hour run time. It’s a living force as nature was in Aguirre: Wrath of God. There’s no great threat from animals, but shot in black and white lends the masses of trees an odd and malevolent feel.
Mitigating some of that negativity is Blake’s sometime traveling companion simply named Nobody. From mixed Indian blood, Nobody has no tribe to call his own and thusly roams around having a decent time all the while. Meeting a man with the same name as his favorite poet, though, seems to endear Depp’s character to the native. In giving Nobody a backlog of literary information, the director works to display myths attached to the ‘Western’ genre. Whether it works or not is up to viewers.
While Jarmusch moves to change the way natives are portrayed on screen, everyone in the film is readily given over to the most base of human instincts. It seems as if lust and money unite a people even as they endeavor to hunt each other. It’s an odd dichotomy to arrive at. And while Jarmusch might have any number of reasons why he set the film up in that manner, the sound track arrives as an important part of the puzzle.
Drafting Neil Young – of CSNY fame as well as a solo career dating back to the sixties – to arrange the score allowed for any number of variables. Young, familiar with Jarmusch’s work or not, wasn’t going to necessarily perceive the feature in similar terms to its director. And whether or not they did is up for debate. But the inclusion of his distorted guitar lines adds a swampy and evil demeanor to an otherwise slowly paced film.
Dead Man isn’t shot like its predecessors – there’s a tremendous amount of motion from scene to scene. And while the tracking shots are still intact, at points, it doesn’t seem like a Jarmusch feature. It is – and the film marked Jarmusch moving towards a wider audience.