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See This: Dead Man At Cole's

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 1, 2011 10:20PM

2011_03_DeadMan.jpg Though the Academy Awards pitched a shutout to the Coen brothers' remake of a genuine classic Western, True Grit, it amassed critical plaudits as quickly as any genre title in recent memory (to the tune of a 95% Tomatometer score) and has earned nearly $170 million for Paramount to date. Today, we have some confirmation that Qentin Tarantino is apparently now making a spaghetti Western. Though the Western seems to be enjoying some slightly rehabilitated cachet, it is never again going to be a vital node in the cinematic organism, even as some blood gets pumped into it every few years or so in a spasm of revisionism. With that in mind, why not turn to perhaps the greatest revisionist Western of them all, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man?

Johnny Depp plays William Blake, an accountant from Cleveland who is unfamiliar with the English poet of the same name, on a journey to the sharpened point of the American frontier. Seeking employment, he finds only injury and pursuit by bounty hunters for a mere act of self-defense. On the run in the wilderness, he encounters an American Indian named Nobody (played with nearly movie-stealing wit by Gary Farmer), convinced that he is the English poet, and together they undertake a journey that is part revenge, part escapism, and entirely trippy. A lyrical and hallucinatory vision-quest, the film is captured against exquisite monochromatic landscapes by the great Robby Müller. Par for the Jarmusch course are ingenious cameos, this time from Iggy Pop, Crispin Glover and (in his very last on-screen appearance) Robert Mitchum. Neil Young provides a majestic and haunting, often-improvised soundtrack consisting mostly of solo guitar under a heavy blanket of reverb.

The narrative elements of Dead Man's picaresque are oblique, several key plot points are deliberately ambiguous and its pace is frustratingly dream-like. Jonathan Rosenbaum nailed that in a monograph for BFI, coining the term "Acid Western" to describe Dead Man. It is fantasy of the West as much as it is a Western, but its intentional tweaking of the genre's conventional baggage (clumsiness towards portraying indigenous peoples, over-simplications of the notions of "good guys" and "bad guys," sexism, glorification of violence, etc.) earn the film an elevated position in what we now must admit is the genre's afterlife, a modern classic.

Dead Man screens at Cole's Bar, 2338 N Milwaukee on Sunday March 6 at 8 p.m. as part of the Cinema Minima series. Free.