Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Blu-ray Review: DEAD MAN (1995)

DEAD MAN (1995)

Label: Echo Bridge Entertainment
Region Code: Region A
Rating: R
Duration: 121 mins
Video: 1080p 16x9 Widescreen (1.78:1)
Audio: DTS-HD MA Stereo 2.0
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Johhny Depp, Gary Framer, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Euegen Byrd, Mili Aviatal, Crispin Glover, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, Gabriel Byrne, Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Alfred Molina

In Jim Jarmucsh's black and white acid-western DEAD MAN Johnny Depp (THE NINTH GATE) portrays William Blake, a young accountant from Cleveland who packs his bags and embarks on a journey to start life anew in the Western frontier town of Machine where he has been offered a job at the Dickinson Metal Works. On the train ride from to Machine the soft-handed city rube sticks out like a sore thumb among the Western frontier folk and rugged buffalo hunters who shoot buffalo from the train. The ride gets weirder when the trains soot covered coal shoveler (Crispin Glover, RIVER'S EDGE) enters the car and sits across from Blake offering a cryptic foretelling of doom.

Arriving in Machine young Blake walks into the metal works where he is informed by the business manager (John Hurt, ALIEN) that he's a month late and the position is no longer available. Blake demands to talk with the Mr.  Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, CAPE FEAR) who promptly drives him off the property at the business end of a double-barrel shotgun. With no job prospects and dwindling funds Blake wanders the grim streets of Machine until he comes to a saloon where he makes the acquaintance of young prostitute named Thel (Mili Avital) who take him home to her bed where her jealous ex-lover Charlie (Gabriel Byrne, MILLER'S CROSSING) bursts into the room and fires upon Blake but Thel throws herself in front of the bullet which kills her and strikes Blake in the chest. Blake grabs the woman's gun and kills Charlie, wounded and dazed he escapes through a window and leaves town on the back of a stolen pony. As it turns out Charlie was the son of Mr. Dickinson and the wealthy factory owner places a large bounty on the head of Blake for the murder of his son and even lays the death of Thel on him, too. Three cold-blooded killers are hired to hunt down Blake; Conway Twill (Michael Wincott, CURTAINS) and Johnny "The Kid" Pickett (Eugene Byrd, TV's BONES) and a cannibalistic psychopath named Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen, ALIENS).

Blake awakens the next day to the sight of an American Indian calling himself Nobody (Gary Farmer, GHOST DOG) performing surgery on his chest wound but he tells Blake that the bullet is too close to his heart and that death is a certainty. Nobody believes that Blake is the reincarnation of the poet William Blake and that he will accompany him to the Pacific Ocean so that he can return his spirit to it's proper place in the spirit world. The Native American outcast acts as Blake's guide to the cleansing waters of the West. The duo amass quite a bodycount in their wake as they encounter many would-be bounty hunters and scoundrels on their path.

The film is certainly a strange beast and has a surreal disconnect that lends an existential quality to Blake's doomed journey through what I would call  purgatory. The setting is pure authentic Western and evokes the scent of sawdust and woodsmoke. The film boasts a stellar supporting actors that includes screen legend Robert Mitchum in his final performance plus a cast of gristle-faced characters whose craggy features drink up Robby Muller's (TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., REPO MAN)  black and white cinematography. There are also notable appearance from rocker Iggy Pop (HARDWARE) as the deranged bible-thumping transvestite leader of a trio of fur traders that includes a pre-SLING BLADE Billy Bob Thornton, and speaking of craggy faces there's also a came from Gibby Haines of the Butthole Surfers, it's quite a cast of characters we have here.

The film operates on several levels ranging from the existential to referential, particularly the the poems of William Blake in much the same way that the Coen Brother's O, BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? mined Ulysses' The Odyssey but I really just enjoy it as a trippy western that tends to defy expectations at every turn. I tend not to read too much into it I just enjoy it but the subtext is there for those of who looking for something deeper.The film was a major disappointment at the box office in '95 when it was released, returning only a ninth of it's budget, apparently 1995 wasn't a great time for a black and white western revival but this is a film that a lot of folks missed the first time around and I say it's well worth a watch whether you be a fan of Depp, Jarmusch or just really awesome Westerns.   

Blu-ray: Echo Bridge's 16x9 enhanced 1.78:1 widescreen AVC encoded HD transfer does the film proper justice. The black and white imagery looks great in 1080p with a nice retention of the film's natural grain structure without the disservice of DNR scrubbing, it looks pretty great. The transfer offers good contrast, decent black levels and fine detail; facial hair, clothing and other textures are nicely resolved. A definite improvement over the previous DVD edition. The DTS-HD MA Stereo 2.0 sounds quite good, too. Dialogue is crisp and there are no distortions that I could discern plus Neil Young's amazing score soars throughout the film. I will say that a more atmospheric 5.1 surround mix could have gone a long way but what we have here is very nice. Special features are few but are at least present, the previous Miramax titles from Echo Bridge have been mostly bereft of bonus content and this is a most welcome exception. What we get are a selection of standard definition letterboxed deleted scenes and a Neil Young music video featuring in-studio footage of him performing the song with a montage of clips from the film overlayed with Johnny Depp narrating William Blake's poetry. I believe that the only feature not carried over from the previous Miramax edition is a theatrical trailer.

Special Features:
- Deleted Scenes (15:54)
- Neil Young Music Video (3:31)

Verdict: DEAD MAN is a film just not mentioned enough when discussing the careers of Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch or just kick ass Westerns in general. The mid-nineties weren't exactly a golden age of cinema so don't let this one sink into obscurity, if you haven't seen it you are missing out on what I would call a must-see, strange and offbeat western that stands aside GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI as one of my favorite Jim Jarmusch films.