After becoming a major advocate of American independent filmmaking during the late 80's/early 90's, and joining the ranks alongside such other directors as Spike Lee, The Coen brothers, Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino as non-conformist filmmakers who's movies often evade the mainstream spotlight, Jim Jarmusch followed his succession of minimalist features by experimenting with colour filmmaking for a brief period with his two films Mystery Train and Night On Earth, both linked by their triptych formats (a style later revisited in 2003's Coffee and Cigarettes).
After a nine year period, Jarmusch revisited black-and-white cinema with his 1995 film Dead Man, an existential Western set in late-19th Century America, starring Johnny Depp as 'William Blake', a greenhorn from the East who's journey to the West via. train represents a transition from one life, into the next. With his destination being the frontier town of 'Machine', his arrival is met sorely, and his shooting of the wealthy town-owner's son causes him to flee injured into the wilderness, where he encounters American-Indian 'Nobody' attempting to dislodge a bullet from his heart, unable to do so, and believed by 'Nobody' to be a reincarnation of the English poet William Blake, Blake is informed that he is the walking dead, starting his journey into unfamiliar territory with the guide of his unconscious mind 'Nobody'.
With American-Indian 'Nobody's' passion of the poetry of William Blake bearing similarities in it's juxtaposition of culture to Jarmusch's 1999 feature Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, in which a black hit-man expresses a complete devotion to the 18th century philosophical and spiritual warrior code of the Hagakure, the hallmarks of Jarmusch's films are as apparent in Dead Man, as in any of his various other directorial works, with themes of estrangement from a character's native land and alienation becoming recurrent topics throughout his career. Dead Man's black-and-white imagery is a conscious effort by Jarmusch to abandon the dusty aesthetic of the Western genre and an attempt to gain a historical distance from the familiarity of colour, drawing influence from directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Ingmar Bergman, using very strong blacks and whites and placing emphasis on lighting and placement.
Neil Young's instrumental score lifts the movie to an entirely different level, using a pump organ, a detuned piano, and most notably electric guitar tracks and feedback to create a strong unsettling and deeply emotional soundtrack that fits perfectly with the themes of the film. Jarmusch's output as a director is inconsistent to say the least, and criminally so, producing only ten feature length movies in a career spanning over thirty years, forgivable, considering his almost flawless oeuvre, in which he has managed to maintain his originality, and creative spirit in an industry rife with studio meddling and compromise.
words by danny walker.