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Dead Man Blu-ray Review

Dead Man (1996) movie poster Dead Man

US Theatrical Release: May 10, 1996 / Running Time: 121 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Jim Jarmusch

Cast: Johnny Depp (William Blake), Gary Farmer (Nobody), Lance Henriksen (Cole Wilson), Michael Wincott (Conway Twill), Mili Avital (Thel Russell), Iggy Pop (Salvatore "Sally" Jenko), Billy Bob Thornton (Big George Drakoulious), Jared Harris (Benmont Tench), Crispin Glover (Train Fireman), Eugene Byrd (Johnny "The Kid" Pickett), Michelle Thrush (Nobody's Girlfriend), Jimmie Ray Weeks (Marvin (Older Marshal)), Mark Bringelson (Lee (Younger Marshal)), Gabriel Byrne (Charlie Dickinson), John Hurt (John Scholfield), Alfred Molina (Trading Post Missionary), Robert Mitchum (John Dickinson)

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Considering how few there were, westerns and black & white movies did quite well for themselves in the 1990s. Together, they claimed three of the decade's Best Picture Oscars in Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, and Schindler's List. Black & white launched major careers (Kevin Smith's Clerks, Christopher Nolan's Following,
Darren Aronofsky's Pi), courted controversy (Natural Born Killers), and won Martin Landau a supporting actor Academy Award (Ed Wood). Westerns also launched (Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi) and ended careers (James Stewart's An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, John Candy's Wagons East), concluded the Back to the Future trilogy, and won Jack Palance a supporting actor Oscar (City Slickers).

Among all these films was Dead Man, one of the first and last black & white westerns in a long time. Written and directed by indie icon Jim Jarmusch, this 1995 Cannes Film Festival entry and spring 1996 theatrical release casts Johnny Depp as Bill Blake, a mild-mannered accountant from Cleveland who comes out West to the town of Machine to accept a new job. Silent for its first five minutes, the film opens with Blake's long train ride, charted by the changing faces and fashions of his fellow passengers. It proceeds with numerous slow fade-outs and fade-ins, as well as a score of unaccompanied electric guitar from rock legend Neil Young. Both feature prominently throughout.

Bow-tied and bespectacled accountant Bill Blake (Johnny Depp) is surprised by the sights he walks past in the dusty western town of Machine. Thel (Mili Avital) extends some hospitality Bill's (Johnny Depp) way, but also a loaded gun and trouble.

At his anticipated new workplace, Dickinson Metal Works, Blake is given a cool reception and informed that the accounting position has been filled in the two months he took to arrive. That is an unforeseen twist for Blake, who recently buried both of his parents and spent all his money to move westward. At least this hellish town of weathered, unfriendly faces is kind enough to introduce Blake to Thel Russell (Mili Avital), a pretty young paper flower maker he helps up from relatable hostility. As luck would have it, the night they spend together ends with Thel's former beau Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) turning up to find them in bed together. With one bullet, he hits both of them. With three, Blake hits and kills Charlie.

Wounded, the accountant runs off and passes out. When he comes to, he is joined by a large Native American man (Gary Farmer), who treats the gunshot while speaking ill of the "stupid white man." Blake picked the wrong man to kill. The deceased is the son of John Dickinson (a brief but effective Robert Mitchum, in one of his final film roles), the rich and feared namesake of Blake's would-be employer. In response, Dickinson hires three of the most accomplished bounty hunters around to work as a team and capture Blake, dead or alive.

Those three -- quiet psychopath Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), talkative Conway Twill (Michael Wincott), and young Johnny "The Kid" Pickett (Eugene Byrd) -- quickly set off on his trail. Meanwhile, fugitive Blake is advised, protected, and transformed by the Native American, who speaks in metaphors, prefers to be called Nobody, mistakes his new friend for the life-changing poet William Blake, and could really go for some tobacco.

Gun-slingin' bounty hunters Johnny "The Kid" Pickett (Eugene Byrd), Conway Twill (Michael Wincott), and Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen) are hired by Mr. Dickinson to capture Bill Blake. Though generally not a fan of the "stupid white man", Nobody (Gary Farmer) makes an exception for the one he thinks is his favorite poet.

There's a great chance you are unfamiliar with the films of Jim Jarmusch, who has managed to be both respected and obscure in a career that spans over thirty years. I discovered him through one of my all-time favorite actors, Bill Murray, who has appeared in the writer/director's three most recent works.
Though their well-received 2005 collaboration Broken Flowers wound up being surprisingly profitable in various parts of the world, one senses that's immaterial to Jarmusch, who attracts an actor of Murray's stature not with money but with art. That type of cinema isn't too commonly or readily embraced in the States, requiring impassioned pitches to (often foreign) investors and financiers with typically little to no return. But inspired by the likes of Andy Warhol and Robert Downey, Sr., Jarmusch has made a go of it with ten feature films, a band documentary, eight music videos, and a handful of other small credits.

Like his other movies, Dead Man is offbeat and distinctive. The colorless rendering of what is surely vibrant Southwestern scenery (the film shot in Nevada, Oregon, Arizona, California, Washington, and upstate New York) is appropriately avant-garde. So too is Neil Young's score, which feels like a Woodstock warm-up/sound check. Neither may be an obvious choice for a tale set in the Old West, but Jarmusch isn't using anyone else's playbook for the genre. While heavy on style, the film has the substance to back it up most of the time. Danger and unpredictability pervade the story and serve it well. As do the performances, from Depp's understated lead to Farmer's sage, ethereal sidekick (a character he briefly reprised in Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai).

In the mid-1990s, Depp wasn't the mega star he was today. But he was a big, respected name and far from the only one drawn to Jarmusch here. Also put to good use in basically credited cameos are Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Alfred Molina, and, as a sketchy trio of friends, Iggy Pop, Jared Harris, and pre-Sling Blade Billy Bob Thornton (whose surname the opening credits misspell).

While millions of people have seen Dead Man and many of them have given it high marks, for me, watching this for the first time now felt like finding an undiscovered portal to the 1990s. The effect was not unlike the one created by two memorable older shorts incorporated into Jarmusch's 2003 anthology film Coffee and Cigarettes. A black & white world where Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits are never too far away, Jarmusch's '90s are so different from my own experience of the decade, which makes it fun aligning the two and fitting this off-radar production into the careers of its assorted famous participants. If you haven't already encountered the movie, you can see if it offers a similar thrill for you, and now in high definition, for Echo Bridge Home Entertainment, who obtained video rights to it as part of the less familiar third of the Miramax Films library they acquired, debuts it this week on Blu-ray Disc.

Dead Man Blu-ray Disc cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: August 9, 2011
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Also available on DVD ($6.99 SRP)
and in Double Feature DVD ($9.99 SRP) with Texas Rangers
Previously released as Miramax DVD

VIDEO and AUDIO

Dead Man is presented in 1.78:1, approximating the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio that most modern westerns shun. Echo Bridge doesn't have the best reputation for A/V quality, so I was concerned when an early scene displayed a brief video glitch and a clipped piece of audio in short succession. Fortunately, those were isolated incidents that did not recur. The results are pretty decent here. The grainy picture doesn't have the detail to rival today's new films, but it remains clean, aside from some slight digital artifacts and a few patches of overly heavy grain in night scenes. The gray palette does seem to ever so subtly fluctuate in parts. The 2.0 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is quite good, dispersing dialogue and Neil Young's loud guitar score crisply and with some weight. Sadly, the studio's usual lack of subtitles applies here.

Outtakes of Robert Mitchum are the highlight of a 16-minute deleted scenes reel. Posters promising a big reward for William Blake's capture blow behind Johnny Depp on the "Dead Man" Blu-ray menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

There isn't much precedence for Echo Bridge offering bonus features and judging from the back cover, the studio's April DVD release of Dead Man seemed to strip off the three extras from the film's 2003 Disney DVD debut.
Happily and surprisingly, two of the three are restored here, both presented letterboxed in unsightly standard definition.

First up is a 16-minute reel of deleted scenes. It includes more Bill and Nobody chats, more of Conway running off his mouth (and violently paying for it), and some amusing Robert Mitchum outtakes.

Next, we get an unidentified 3-minute music video, which seems to present the end credits theme from Neil Young's score. The video showcases some trippily-edited clips from the movie along with shrouded glimpses of Young performing. Depp supplies some seemingly original voiceover on a brief stretch. It's a welcome curiosity.

The one extra not ported over from the film's original DVD is Dead Man's theatrical trailer. I don't know if Disney retains possession of that, but it certainly would have been nice to see here.

The simple but cool menu plays score while wanted posters blow behind a static Depp pose. While the disc doesn't support bookmarks, it does happily resume playback of both the movie and the bonus features, if you need to leave and come back. There are neither inserts nor cut-outs inside the standard slim Blu-ray case.

Large Native American Nobody (Gary Farmer) never stops dispatching unclear wisdom to the outlaw William Blake (Johnny Depp) in "Dead Man."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man is a little-known gem from the fringe of the 1990s indie film boom, ranking as one of Johnny Depp's best and least familiar movies. This appealing, slightly eccentric black & white western is treated to a serviceable Blu-ray release from Echo Bridge, boasting decent picture, good sound, and a couple of nice extras. Though fans may be left wanting more, the disc is worth picking up at Amazon's current low price of $7.99.

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Blu-ray / DVD / Double Feature DVD with Texas Rangers

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Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch: Down by Law (Criterion Collection Blu-ray)
Mid-1990s Indies: Bottle Rocket Sling Blade The Usual Suspects Four Rooms Crumb
Westerns: Tombstone (Blu-ray) True Grit (2010) Once Upon a Time in the West (Blu-ray) Stagecoach (Criterion)

Johnny Depp:
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Criterion Collection Blu-ray) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Rango The Tourist Platoon (Blu-ray + DVD) Finding Neverland Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

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Reviewed August 8, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1995-96 Miramax Films, Pandora Film, JVC, Newmarket Capital Group, L.P., 12-Gauge Productions,
and 2011 Echo Bridge Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.