The soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch's new Dead Man won't do much for Neil Young's reputation. It's mostly just raspy, lingering chords struck on an electric guitar, mournfully monotonous twangs that eventually accumulate into a kind of Chinese water torture, fraying nerves and patience, and steadily eroding — along with the film itself — one's desire not to scream in frustration. Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law) seems to be testing the Andy Warhol dictum that people would rather watch something than nothing — even if that something is barely more than nothing.
Dead Man is deliberately, lethally tedious, a dark spoof of westerns that drifts along for two hours in a persistent vegetative state of black and white. The picture has its moments, intermittently juxtaposing (as did the recent Fargo) macabre jokes and brutally explicit violence, but it lacks sustaining density. No shot lasts for more than 30 seconds, and that choppiness magnifies the film's smallness; it's basically a series of skits with recurrent characters, strung together like beads on a string. The “dead man” is William Blake (Johnny Depp), a fresh-faced but luckless young accountant from Cleveland who as the movie opens is on a train heading west to start a new life in the wake of his parents' deaths. Depp's mouthful of perfect Hollywood teeth, straight and white, is one of the movie's earliest, and best, jokes; whatever effects Jarmusch is after, realism isn't one of them. (The bizarrely effective Crispin Glover makes a brief appearance in this opening sequence, as the train's doom-spewing fireman, and with his insanely bright eyes and soot-smudged face he sets the film's distinctively creepy tone.)
Blake's destination is a frontier town called Machine. Cartoony but bleak, it's like a Taco Bell commercial as directed by Charles Dickens, a depressing, shabby Wild West burg where pigs wander the streets, men get blow jobs in doorways, and the local coffin-maker can't keep up with demand. Machine is aptly named; its only sizable enterprise is the Dickinson Metalworks, where Blake has been promised a job. He even has a letter of confirmation. The idea of a written promise's having any meaning produces a hideous cackle from the black-toothed foreman (John Hurt), as does Blake's request to see Dickinson (an exultantly evil Robert Mitchum) himself.
Blake steps into the owner's office to find himself staring down the double barrels of a shotgun. “Where'd you get that suit? Cleveland?” the old man asks with bright contempt. Since every character in the movie seems to be carrying at least one gun, it's hardly surprising when they start to go off. Blake finds himself first in a boudoir shootout, when the girl he goes home with, Thell Russell (Mili Avital), turns out to be the estranged fiancee of Mitchum's son, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne). Thell keeps a gun under her pillow; when Blake asks her why she has it, she replies, “Because this is America” — a very Jarmuschy crack. Charlie bursts in and shoots Thell to death in a spasm of despairing jealousy, and is then dispatched by Blake.
Blake promptly becomes a fugitive, and here the movie turns into a narcoleptic chase, as three thugs hired by Dickinson try to hunt him down. They'd have a pitiably easy time of it, except that Blake falls into the beneficent hands of Nobody (Gary Farmer), a chubby-cheeked Indian who mysteriously studied poetry in England and believes that Blake is in fact William Blake the poet. (In another Jarmusch gag, Nobody always refers to Blake as “William Blake.” As with any phrase repeated over and over, meaning is lost and the phrase becomes inexplicably hilarious.) Chance encounters. Shootings. Black blood. Bodies sprawled in the dust. For a nice young accountant from Cleveland, Blake is soon mowing them down like Billy the Kid. In a particularly wild scene, he's taken in by three homosexual cowboys who get into an argument about stroking his hair (“How do you make it so soft?” one suitor inquires) and end up shooting each other. Nobody finishes off the last one when the rifle he's examining unexpectedly discharges. The accidental shooting that drills somebody with Mannix-like precision — neither Blake nor Nobody ever needs more than a single squeeze of the trigger — is another of Jarmusch's pet devices. If he's trying to say something about the randomness of violence, he's doing it with ham hands. More likely he just likes the gleefully bloody slapstick.
The movie has a lot of strong parts — an eccentrically distinguished cast, starkly powerful cinematography, a vigorously disruptive sensibility, the weirdly effective mix of laughter and violent death — but the picture as a whole is less than their sum. The William Blake business is an identity joke that goes nowhere. The social ob-servation is deft but shallow. If movies are windows into their creators' souls, then Jarmusch comes off as a man with a short attention span, someone who momentarily takes a fancy to a paradox or double meaning but then quickly becomes bored and drops it. “There are limits to how much lethargy audiences will sit still for,” Pauline Kael wrote about Jarmusch in the New Yorker 10 years ago. Jarmusch apparently wasn't paying attention, or he doesn't care — or maybe he thinks that the cure to lethargy is more of the same. He is an American, after all, and in America more and bigger are always better.
Dead Man is torpid in a major way. At the end the film sounds a spiritual note that has all the sophistication and nuance of stoned freshmen sitting around a dorm room at 3 a.m. talking about God. It's an empty portentousness that seems deep and moving to people who've taken the same drug, but ridiculous to everyone else.
Dead Man opens Fri, May 10, at the Gateway in S.F. and the Act One/Two in Berkeley.