THOUGH NO ONE BUT JIM JARMUSCH could have made Dead Man, no one could have expected this film. The exemplar of Downtown Cool filmmaking ("Stranger Than Paradise," "Down By Law," "Mystery Train"), always gun-shy of genre, has made a Western. Needless to say, it's no ordinary Western, even though Robert Mitchum is in it (briefly) wielding a shotgun. So is Iggy Pop (briefly) wearing a homespun dress and bonnet, and Crispin Glover (briefly) acting strange. But anyone expecting an anachronistic, hipster sendup of the Old West is in for a surprise. The mordant, deadpan humor that streaks through "Dead Man" is echt Jarmusch, but it's in the service of his most mysterious and deeply felt movie, a meditation on death and transfiguration that, by the end, has thrown off the protective veil of irony.
"Dead Man" is an odyssey that takes its young hero, an accountant from Cleveland named William Blake (Johnny Depp), through hell. It will leave him, perhaps, on the portals of heaven. Hell is the pitiless, violent frontier town of Machine, where Blake has been promised an accounting job that never materializes at the Dickinson Mining Works. Instead, this timid, peaceable man finds himself wounded in a gunfight in which he kills the son of the mining-works owner (Mitchum). With a price on his head, a piece of lead near his heart and three notorious and bizarre hired guns on his trail (taciturn Lance Henrickson, talkative Michael Wincott, baby-faced Eugene Byrd), the fugitive begins his flight. His only ally is a strange, outcast Indian named Nobody (the memorable Gary Farmer) who, conversant in English literature, takes him for the great, apocalyptic English poet William Blake. But this is America, where the gun is mightier than the pen. "That weapon will replace your tongue," Nobody prophesies. "Your poetry will be written in blood." His words prove all too true.
"Dead Man" is not an easy movie to categorize. Is it an allegory, a tone poem, a vision quest? Undeniably, it's an original. Shot in rich, gorgeous black and white by Robby Muller, haunted by the guttural quaver of Neil Young's electric guitar, it unfolds with a slow, laconic, dreamlike logic that achieves a hallucinatory power in its final passages, when the dying Blake arrives at the Makah Indian compound on the Pacific Coast to prepare for his final voyage. Depp, the most soulful of our younger actors, is the perfect icon for this journey: his face, in black and white, has a pale radiance that harks back to the Russian silent screen. Farmer, as earthy as Depp is ethereal, partners him beautifully.
I won't pretend that Jarmusch's austere poetry will speak to everyone. His vision of the West's culture of death doesn't pander to the thrill-seeking audience: the violence is awkward, deglamorized; the pace unhurried. His cult followers may not be ready for a transcendental Jim Jarmusch. No matter. This strange, mystical Western is his most daring work -- his best since "Stranger Than Paradise."