Like the paper flowers that William Blake (Johnny Depp) finds absent natural scent, Dead Man is built on self-conscious artificiality. Jim Jarmusch’s neo-Western is as influenced by woodcut animation or a matinee performance of a silent-movie serial; where Sergio Leone’s post-modern approach the Western exaggerated the cinematic tropes of the genre, Jarmusch filters those conventions through a disjointed sleep, suffused with uneasy, off-kilter dream imagery.
Dead Man’s artificiality strengthens rather than weakens its acuity. Within its spirituality, deadpan humour and reflections upon the primal necessity of violence, it’s philosophically adjacent to Blood Meridian and, perhaps, the closest we’ll get to a thematically coherent cinematic adaptation of that novel.
The film’s minimalist storyline sees Blake on the run from bounty hunters after a bout of bad luck, but Jarmusch is less interested in confrontations than evoking and sustaining mood. Like No Country for Old Men, violence is a necessity rather than the focus: to be lamented, not celebrated. This is communicated in a cut, late in the film, to a fireside meal whose true import gradually becomes chillingly clear. With stunning black-and-white cinematography and a jarring guitar-driven score from Neil Young, Dead Man is both intellectually compelling and profoundly poetic.