Dead Man is the ultimate experimental western film with its unique visuals, modern musical score, and dialogue. This movie has everything going for it -- acting, story, cinematography, characters -- and features an incredible cast. Johnny Depp, Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Crispin Glover, Gabriel Byrne, Lance Henricksen, Billy Bob Thorton, Alfred Molina, and Iggy Pop. I think this impressively creative and brutal film might be my favorite Jim Jarmusch movie. Must-Own!
Back in 1995, a brilliant filmmaker named Jim Jarmusch decided to make his own version of a western. Coming off of films such as Down By Law, Night On Earth, and Permanent Vacation, you could easily tell that Jarmusch's vision of a Western would be completely different than anything that came before it. His ability to tell a ruthless and well-researched story, along with his own original brand of dark humor and a magnificent score, only made Dead Man one of the better and most memorable films to come out of the 1990s.
Dead Man follows a young man named William Blake (Johnny Depp) who is on his way to take up an accounting job across the country in a small town. Once there, he finds out that the job has already been filled and is forced to leave at gunpoint from the company's owner, John Dickenson. With no money or place to sleep, a local prostitute helps him out, but her ex-lover finds them in bed together and shoots them both. Blake survives while killing the woman's ex, only to find out the ex is Dickenson's son, who then hires a band of ruthless outlaws to hunt him down.
As Blake is on the run, he crosses paths with a Native American who goes by the name Nothing, as they help each other get away from the outlaws. Director Jim Jarmusch has added several modern elements throughout this film that bring this Western into its own category. It's brutally violent, but has a bit of dark comedy along with an amazing score from legendary songwriter Neil Young. The relationship Blake forges with Nothing is quite thrilling as we get a glimpse into both men's past of turmoil.
It's a very poetic film in how it's told as well, both literally and visually. Nothing is infatuated with the poet William Blake who just happens to be the name of the main character here, while the black & white visuals showcase even more detail to the story and feel of the film. Dead Man is one of those forgotten movies that still holds up more than twenty years later. Its performances, storytelling, brutality, and the dynamic relationship between Nothing and Blake are nothing short of flawless. To this day, I believe Johnny Depp models most of his characters after this William Blake persona.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Dead Man comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc from Criterion. There is a Criterion booklet that is fully illustrated, which includes cast and crew information, tech specs, and essays by Amy Taubin and Ben Ratliff. This comes with Spine #919. The disc and booklet are housed in a hard, clear plastic case.
Back in 2011, we had a Blu-ray release of the film, which looked okay at best. Finally though, we have a Criterion version of the movie with a brand new 4K digital transfer that was supervised and approved by director Jim Jarmusch. According to the Criterion booklet, the new transfer and restoration was created form the original 35mm negative, where thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed. Also, the film has been reverted back to its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio after the 2011 release came with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
With the new aspect ratio, there is more to see in each frame, particularly the edges of the screen. The black and white colors are dynamic in well-lit environments as well as the night time scenes around campfires. The detail is very sharp and vivid throughout too. Facial pores are easily seen as well as individual hairs on the actor's faces. The wider shots that showcase the wooden sets in the Western town or even the bark on the trees look impressive with fine detail. The black levels are deep and inky throughout with zero crush. There is a perfect layer of filmic grain throughout that never fluctuates. This is a remarkable video presentation and the best the film has ever looked.
This release comes with a DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix that, according to the Criterion booklet, was remastered from the 35mm magnetic tracks. All of the pops, cracks, hiss, and thumps were manually removed. It's a solid sounding track for sure with gun blasts sounding fairly robust, but never packing a ton of bass or heft like if it were a modern day action blockbuster. Instead, it's more realistic sounding.
The large sound of the trains moving by or horses trotting along all sound full and dynamic in each scene. The dialogue is always clear and easy to follow along with and free of any issues. The spotlight though here is the amazing musical score from Neil Young, with impressive guitar riffs and chords that completely make the film. It's a great soundtrack.
Audio Commentary - Production designer Bob Ziembicki and sound mixer Drew Kunin deliver an engaging commentary track here, where they discuss the tones and theories on the film, along with the music, and anecdotes from the set. There are some long gaps in the discussion though so beware.
Q&A With Jim (HD, 48 Mins.) - This new featurette is super cool. Criterion had fans of the film and Jarmusch send in questions for him to answer, which he does here. He reads the questions off and gives amazing answers to everything you wanted to know about the movie. There are 30 questions in total that he asks, from the food, the movie Dolemite, the music, and more. What a fantastic extras, which I hope shows up more in Criterion releases. This is audio only with an image of the film laid over. In addition to this, Criterion has allowed you to view/listen to the whole Q&A or select a specific question you'f like to listen to.
Interview with Gary Farmer (HD, 27 Mins.) - Here is a brand new interview with actor Gary Farmer who played Nothing in the film as he gives a video interview about working on the film, how he got the part, the character, and working with Depp and Jarmusch. A great interview.
Reading Blake (HD, 8 Mins.) - Iggy Pop, Alfred Molina, and Mili Avital all read select poems of William Blake here as photo stills from scouting the film are shown.
Deleted Scenes (SD, 15 Mins.) - There are several deleted scenes here, which are in poor quality. Watching these scenes compared to the new transfer is night and day. Still, these scenes are worth watching, even if the video quality isn't great.
Neil Young (SD, 30 Mins.) - This two-part featurette showcases raw footage of Neil Young composing the score to the film, while he watches it on a small screen in front of his instruments. The footage is not in HD, but rather poor and in a dark studio space. The other small featurette here is a music video of Neil Young performing some of the music from the film with clips from the movie spliced in. If you push the audio button on your remote, you'll be able to listen to Johnny Depp read a William Blake poem over the video.
Black and White in Color (HD, 1 Min.) - A slideshow of production stills of the film in full color.
Trailer (HD, 3 Mins.) - Trailer for the film.
Criterion Booklet - A fully illustrated booklet with cast and crew info, technical aspects, and two essays on the film by Amy Taubin and Ben Ratliff.
Unique direction, poetic storytelling, an all-star cast, a fantastic score, and cracking dialog make Dead Man the ultimate experimental western. This fantastic film still holds up today and might even be my favorite Jim Jarmusch movie (it's certainly one of his best of that decade). Criterion has knocked the Blu-ray out of the proverbial park with a new 4K master, cleaned up audio, and some of the best extras to be found. MUST-OWN!