Friday, November 29, 2013

Lady Beware

Burnt out from the debacle that was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984) and the commercial failure of Streets of Fire (1984), Diane Lane had gone from promising A-list actress to box office poison. Stinging from these two high profile flops and eager to escape the media spotlight, she took some time off to regroup and figure out what she wanted to do next. In 1987, she came roaring back with a vengeance with two films, one of which was Lady Beware, a modest B-movie thriller that was a labor of love for its director, Karen Arthur, but ran afoul of studio interference. While hardly a masterpiece, it is an intriguing cinematic detour in Lane’s filmography.

Katya Yarno (Diane Lane) is an aspiring window dresser who arrives in Pittsburgh and applies for a job at a big department store by persistently pursuing its owner Mr. Thayer (Edward Penn). She impresses him with her moxie as she flat-out tells him that his window displays “suck,” but it gets her foot in the door. She soon befriends fellow employees Lionel (Peter Nevargic) and Nan (Tyra Ferrell). Eager to impress, Katya works late and creates quite a provocative display on her first attempt, which gets the attention Jack Price (Michael Woods), a hunky guy who begins stalking Katya, watching her while she bathes, and later, her sleeping, all from the vantage point of the fire escape on her building.

Meanwhile, Katya has a literally steamy dream of having sex with a muscular model while naked mannequins from her window display look on. Her fantasies fuel her work and despite the protestations of his prudish wife, Thayer is impressed by Katya’s work, giving her a six-month contract. In these early scenes, Lane does a nice job of conveying Katya’s youthful enthusiasm and ambition to make it in the big city, but with a hint of being something of a provocateur as her racy displays upset some and excite others. The use of actual locations in and around the city really creates a sense of place that is tangible and grounds things, which offsets its B-movie-ness a bit.


Soon, Katya is interviewed by Pittsburgh Magazine’s Mac Odell (Cotter Smith, saddled with the thankless nice guy role), who not only likes her window displays, but the young woman as well, much to the chagrin of stalker Jack. He soon ups the ante on his tactics, harassing her on the phone and even opening her mail. Michael Woods oozes sleaze as the creepy stalker fixated on Lane’s character. The fact that Jack has a wife and kid (even calling Katya while playing with his child) makes him even scarier. Director Karen Arthur does a pretty good job of showing Jack’s gradually unsettling voyeuristic tendencies and how they unnerve and upset Katya, preying on her insecurities. At times, Jack’s fixation is really upsetting (especially if you’ve ever been stalked), like when he breaks into Katya’s place and takes a bath in her tub, even using her toothbrush (ugh!). He confidently roams around her apartment like he owns the place and it’s not even 45 minutes in when you’re hoping that someone takes this sicko out.

Lane is certainly not afraid to show off her beautiful body during certain moments in the film, which only adds to the slightly sleazy B-movie thriller vibe, but is meant to reinforce Katya’s enticing tendencies. As the film progresses, she convincingly conveys the stress and fear Katya experiences once Jack’s obsessive behavior makes her life a living hell. She starts off as this confident young woman and over the course of the film, her world is shaken by Jack’s frightening tactics and this is shown in how it affects her work. However, Katya has an inner strength that she is able to tap into, which helps her deal with what’s happening.

After Karen Arthur released her second film, The Mafu Cage in 1978, she began work on Lady Beware. Over the next eight years, “it’s had 100 homes, 17 drafts and eight writers,” she said. The director wanted to make a movie about psychological rape, but found that at the Hollywood studios, “the purse holders are men.” When she shopped the project around, Arthur found that the studios wanted to make “a violent picture,” but she was “not interested in making a picture where a woman gets beat up. I wanted to show how a woman deals with this kind of insidious violence.” While trying to get financial backing, she made development deals in order to make a living, but she wasn’t actually directing any movies and tried her hand at television, winning an Emmy for an episode of Cagney & Lacey and became the first woman to direct an American mini-series – Crossings. She eventually secured financing with Scotti Bros. Entertainment, an American independent production company.


Filming was originally announced to start in October of 1984, but for some reason was pushed back two years. The film’s producers considered shooting in Chicago, Detroit and Atlanta, but executive producer Lawrence Mortoff had made a previous film in Pittsburgh and was familiar with the city. For the lead role, he considered Elizabeth McGovern and Lori Street before going with Diane Lane. After The Cotton Club, she was tired and took two years off in order “to get a perspective from a point of not having a career.” She had lost her love for acting and just wanted to experience life outside of moviemaking. Lane eventually rediscovered her desire to act and when she was ready come back to work was offered three films: The Big Town (1987), After the Rain, and Lady Beware.

Budgeted at $3 million, principal photography began on July 21, 1986 on location in Pittsburgh and ended around August 23, 1986. The production was hardly harmonious as local crew members clashed with the film’s associate producer and first assistant director Paula Marcus who was described as “overly aggressive and mean.” She was not well liked by the crew. Later on, one of the local actors who worked on the film claimed that the editors ruined it. Said thespian met Arthur a year later and she was still upset by the experience.

Lady Beware received mixed reviews. In his review for The New York Times, Walter Goodman criticized the film’s ending and felt that Arthur “seems to have given up trying to understand what is going on, for which you can’t blame her.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “Lane does manage to convey some of the suffering inflicted by this sort of psychological rape. Lane’s reached a fascinating point as a performer – a place somewhere between being a woman and a girl – so that in some scenes she’s able to come across as strikingly mature and self-possessed and, in others, as a frightened child, small and vulnerable.” In his review for the Toronto Star, Geoff Pevere compared it to Fatal Attraction: “Although hampered by weak performances … poor sound dubbing and serious continuity troubles … Lady Beware bravely ventures much closer to the dark heart of sexual harassment than its vastly more popular and polished contemporary.”

Lady Beware raises the issue of the danger that women sometimes encounter when they come across as what is perceived by some as being too provocative and how a disturbing fixation can develop as a result – something that was not the intention of the woman. It can make the person feel like a victim as they live in constant fear for their life, not knowing when and where their stalker will surface. It’s all about being in control. By harassing Katya relentlessly, Jack makes her feel helpless and controls her through fear. Once she conquers that fear she is able to turn the tables on him.


Lady Beware is a potent reminder of the real danger stalkers pose and just how scary it is for the target of their obsession. Katya has supportive co-workers and a caring boyfriend, but none of them know how she feels and how it affects her, which Lane conveys quite well in a surprisingly nuanced performance that, at times, almost transcends the film’s thriller genre clichés. Of course, this is all conveyed under the auspices of a B-movie thriller with some of the genre’s lurid trappings, some clunky dialogue and scenery-chewing acting. This is glaringly apparent during the last 30 minutes as Lane succumbs to cringe-inducing histrionics that are meant to show Katya’s increasingly upset nature and how much she’s affected by what Jack’s doing to her by isolating herself from everyone as a form of protection, but it comes across as the actress going over the top in some really laughable moments that rob the film of its initial power. It is these moments that feel like the studio exerted its influence by applying more conventional genre trappings, but fortunately the film regains its composure somewhat during the climax.


SOURCES

Mills, Nancy. “Lady Beware Has Been This Director’s Legacy.” Los Angeles Times. May 29, 1986.

Scott, Vernon. “Diane Lane Ending Hiatus in Pittsburgh-Filmed Lady Beware.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. September 15, 1987.


Tiech, John. Pittsburgh Film History: On Set in the Steel City. The History Press: Charleston. 2012.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Killing Them Softly

Based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly (2012) is a protest film masquerading as a crime movie. It’s an angry howl of discontent presented under the auspices of a Quentin Tarantino-esque tale of tough guys with guns only with much more depth and even more talking (if that’s possible). Despite receiving a warm reception at the Cannes Film Festival, Andrew Dominik’s film failed to make back its $15 million budget in North America and had to rely on international grosses to turn a profit. Clearly mainstream movie-going audiences were not interested in seeing an overtly talky crime film starring Brad Pitt. This is a shame because Killing Them Softly, while a bit heavy-handed in some spots, is quite brilliant.

The set-up is a simple one. Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), two small-time criminals, are hired to knock over a poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The take is estimated to be the neighborhood of $40 – 50,000 and they can pin the blame on Markie as he knocked over the previous game. So, they figure he’ll take the blame again, get whacked and no one will be the wiser. The mob brings in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a fixer cum hitman that meets with his contact (Richard Jenkins) and is hired to find out who robbed the poker game and eliminate them. Jackie does indeed find out and brings in “New York Mickey” (James Gandolfini) to help him kill those responsible. This is all set against the backdrop of the American financial crisis and the presidential election campaign in 2008.

Frankie and Russell are real pieces of work. Frankie is an amicable sort of fellow and definitely the smarter of the two, but he’s young and inexperienced. Russell is a mouthy Australian who looks like a homeless junkie, but says he has some scam going involving stealing purebred dogs for money in order to get enough cash to move into drug dealing. Ben Mendelsohn seems to be channeling Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy (1969) with a sweaty, disheveled look and chatty, foul-mouthed demeanor that has more than a whiff of desperation. The conversation between him and Frankie in a car en route to the robbery is Tarantino-esque in the sense that these guys are talking about inconsequential things, but it does inform their characters. They banter and bicker and are slightly inept, like how Russell brings rubber dishwashing gloves to the robbery, which is an amusing detail.


The actual robbery scene is thick with tension as we wonder if these two lunkheads are going to actually pull it off. Ray Liotta plays this scene so well as Markie calmly tries to convince Russell not to go through with deed. It’s heartbreaking to see a certain sense of resignation play over Markie’s face as he knows that he’s going to get blamed for the robbery. As a result you feel kind of bad for him as he’s not to blame, but will be because of his previous mistake.

The initial scene between Jackie and his contact is beautifully written and acted as we see the former cut through all the bullshit and find what the Mafia really wants him to do. Jackie is a logical, oddly compassionate, guy. Through the course of the conversation he’s told that the Mafia is no longer run by one guy, but by a committee with “total corporate mentality.” Again, the corporatization of America rears its ugly head as Dominik hammers the point home of the diluting of the Mafia, which is gradually destroying it, much to Jackie’s chagrin – definitely an old school kind of guy.

In all the conversations between Jackie and his contact, Pitt gets to deliver beautifully written monologues full of anger and humor. In the second one, Jackie explains his method of killing. To avoid having to deal with the messy emotions of victims pleading for their lives, he prefers to kill them from a distance or, as he puts it, “kill them softly.” In recent years, Pitt has gotten more comfortable in his own skin, with getting older and doing character roles like this one. He has also gotten better as an actor. He’s less mannered or, rather better at knowing when to be as he is able to slip into a role with more skill. Pitt looks more at ease immersed in a character, which comes from experience.


It is also fantastic to see Pitt sharing two scenes with the caliber of someone like James Gandolfini who plays Mickey as a cranky alcoholic capable of chugging a tall glass of beer like its water. He’s a bitter mess of a human being, lost in his own personal problems. The scene where Mickey and Jackie meet at a bar and talk about trivial things (in the sense that they don’t have anything to do with the main plot), like the former potentially going to prison for getting caught with a shotgun, is wonderful as we get to see two veteran actors share a scene together playing seasoned pros. Mickey talks about his disintegrating marriage while Jackie frets over the big man’s excessive drinking and wondering if he’ll be able to do his part. Gandolfini is playing a clearly unhappy man and this scene provides fascinating insight into Mickey’s sad life, which the actor conveys brilliantly here and even more so in another scene in a vanity-free performance.

Killing Them Softly came out of the anger Australian director Andrew Dominik felt about “how the whole world revolves around the dollar,” and seeing The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) on television. He was struck by how authentic a crime film it seemed and found out that it was based on a book written by George V. Higgins. He started reading the other man’s novels and one in particular, Cogan’s Trade, felt like it would make a good film. The economic crisis of 2008 was fresh in the director’s mind when he began adapting the novel. He realized that its story featured “an economic crisis in an economy that was funded by gambling – and the crisis occurred due to a failure in regulation.” Dominik used the crime genre to comment on the economic crisis because he felt that these kinds of films were “about capitalism, because it’s the one genre where it’s perfectly acceptable for all the characters to be motivated by desire for money only.”

He originally pitched the film to some financiers and was able to get it green-lighted. He sent Brad Pitt a copy of the book, but didn’t hear back from him because he was busy making Moneyball (2011). So, Dominik pursued another actor for the role, but reached out again to Pitt and made sure he wasn’t interested. The actor was and they hashed out a deal and found a window of opportunity in his busy schedule before the screenplay had even been written. The director was surprised that Pitt wanted to play the character of Jackie Cogan because, at the time, the actor had expressed an interest in playing the completely opposite kind of people.


The source material was very dialogue-heavy as was the eventual script. Dominik ended up looking at a lot of screwball comedies from the 1940s and they influenced the simple approach he took towards the dialogue scenes: “Just have the shot and let the actor do all the work.” The director was also influenced by the Albert and David Maysles documentary Salesman (1969), drawn to its grim tone and Midwest during the winter setting. As a result, the desolate landscape in the opening scene was Dominik’s idea of “America as Chernobyl.” Ultimately, he felt that the film’s message came down to “pointing its finger at the lie with which America was constructed – this idea that we’re all equal. Which clearly nobody believes.”

Killing Them Softly received mixed to negative reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “It all seems as if I’ve been seeing versions of this story since forever … All Killing Them Softly takes from the limitless universe of film noir is the night and the city.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “At times you might swear you’re looking at the film’s outtake reel, or a rehearsal video of infertile improvs. Despite enough pummeling to flatten Rocky Balboa in all six movies, the only thing that truly rewards your attendance is Pitt in another effortless star performance.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott felt that the film took place “entirely in a universe of tropes and archetypes, which is a polite way of saying clichés and pretensions.”

The Washington Post gave the film two out of our four stars and Ann Hornaday wrote, “Hope and change come in for their share of body blows in Killing Them Softly, but the film’s own jaundiced amorality ultimately feels just as devoid of meaning or genuine edge.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “There’s nothing touchy-feely about Killing Them Softly, a stylish thriller worth seeing – despite its relentless violence – for its sharp dialogue, mesmerizing photography and gritty performances.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Betsy Sharkey wrote, “In all the gritty confusion of the film, Pitt’s Jackie is the constant voice of reason. While his last big at-bat, Moneyball, was a far better movie, there is an effortlessness here in the way Pitt turns small scenes into defining moments.” Finally, Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Killing Them Softly is a blistering, at times, hypnotic minor movie that wraps itself in an importance it never earns. But there’s no doubt that it has made me an Andrew Dominik believer.”


Dominik makes a point of showing how hard hit economically the town where the story takes place is with the opening scene between Frankie and Russell, which occurs on the street in a run-down area populated by dilapidated and abandoned homes overrun with wild grass. It’s an image that contradicts Barack Obama’s message of hope that can be heard sampled at the beginning of the film. The then-presidential hopeful speaks optimistically of what he hopes America will become while Dominik shows us how it is. Throughout the film, we hear soundbites from Obama and then-President George Bush, who can be seen speaking on television about the economy in the background during the robbery scene. Dominik is more interested in what his characters do and say in between shoot-outs and beat-downs, and how what they do has been affected by the economic collapse.

Jackie is Dominik’s angry voice as the hitman rails against ineffectual bosses that don’t know what they’re doing and take too long making decisions. He keeps his finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the streets while his employers are clearly out of touch. The bottom line is that Jackie is a professional who is good at what he does and expects to get paid well for it. This is best summed up at the end of Killing Them Softly when his employers try to short-change him for what he’s owed because of “recession prices.” An understandably upset Jackie lays it all out for the flunky when he tells him, “I’m livin’ in America and in America you’re on your own. America is not a country. It’s a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.” Cut to black and cue “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong, which is a wonderful cheeky way to end the film. I’m sure people were not expecting a talky gangster film, but that’s what they got as Dominik delivered a brilliant, angry blast at what he perceived is wrong with the state of America.


SOURCES

Digiacomo, Frank. “Killing Them Softly Director Andrew Dominik Discusses His American Horror Story.” Movieline. November 28, 2012.

Douglas, Edward. “Interview: Killing Them Softly Director Andrew Dominik.” Coming Soon. November 29, 2012.

Taylor, Drew. “Andrew Dominik Talks the Anger of Killing Them Softly, Downplays the ‘Mythical’ Long Version of Jesse James.” The Playlist. November 27, 2012.

Weston, Hillary. “Getting Down to Business with Killing Them Softly Director Andrew Dominik.” Black Book. November 30, 2012.


Wright, Bernard. “Killing Them Softly Helmer Andrew Dominik Talks Music as Film.” The Playlist. May 23, 2012.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

With the phenomenal success of The Avengers (2012), the next wave of Marvel Comics movies were bound to feed off of its good will and this was certainly true of Iron Man 3 (2013), which was a massive hit. Next up is Thor: The Dark World (2013), the sequel to 2011’s Thor, which introduced audiences to the version of the Norse god that Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby created back in the early 1960s in the pages of Journey into Mystery. I was never a big fan of the character, but director Kenneth Branagh and his screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne did an excellent job of introducing Thor and his world by juxtaposing his adventures on Earth with the crisis he faced on Asgard, the otherworldly realm where he lives. Branagh maintained a delicate balancing act between remaining faithful to the spirit of the source material and making it cinematic all the while giving the proceedings a certain Shakespearean flair. The end result was very entertaining and engaging movie. With this sequel would Marvel be able to replicate the quality of the first movie and build on it?

The Dark World takes place after the events of The Avengers. Thor’s adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been banished to the dungeons for eternity while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his friends and fellow warriors Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Frandral (Zachary Levi) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) are cleaning up Loki’s mess by bringing order to the Nine Realms in an exciting battle sequence that not only does a nice job of re-introducing these characters, but ends on an amusing note.

The people of Asgard are enjoying a rare interlude of peace, but Thor still thinks of Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the beautiful astrophysicist he left back on Earth. She has been unsuccessfully trying her hand at dating while her colleague Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) has lost his marbles running around Stonehenge naked, babbling about the Convergence, a rare occurrence that would see all Nine Realms align. While checking out a strange gravitational anomaly, Jane is transported into another realm where she’s infected by Aether, a substance that a race known as the Dark Elves tried to use eons ago in an attempt to unite the realms and plunge the universe into darkness. Jane’s discovery has awoken them from suspended animation and their leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) is ready to renew his war against the Asgardians. Thor realizes that something is not right with Jane and takes her to Asgard and together they deal with the Dark Elves threat.


The Dark World does a nice job of upping the stakes considerably as Asgard is directly threatened as is Thor’s family, which makes it even more personal for our hero. Loki is back and once again gets the lion’s share of the juicy one-liners and scenes to steal. It’s a plum role that Tom Hiddleston clearly relishes playing. As he did in Thor, Chris Hemsworth maintains the right mix of cocky swagger and righteous heroism while playing well off of the always mischievous Loki. Hemsworth brings a steely determination and a physicality that is ideal for Thor. While the film moves at a brisk pace and is almost never dull, the scenes between Hemsworth and Hiddleston are easily the best parts as the rapport between the two actors, that has been cultivated over three movies now, is a considerable part of The Dark World’s charm.

Much like in Thor, Natalie Portman’s Jane is often relegated to the sidelines, due to her lack of superpowers, despite a half-hearted attempt to drum up some jealousy for her affection for Thor from Sif. However, after being a damsel in distress for two-thirds of the movie, she is given a lot to do during the action-packed climax, which thankfully redeems Portman’s character somewhat.

There is a bit more humor in The Dark World, which offsets the dark intensity of the epic struggle that is waged throughout, and this is due in large part to Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard who reprise their roles as Jane’s colleagues. The former provides her trademark dry sarcastic wit while the latter hams it up as a man who treads the line of sanity based on his experiences in The Avengers, but, as it turns out, might not be as crazy as everyone assumes.


The hiring of frequent Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor was an excellent choice as he brings a decidedly grittier edge to The Dark World and also applies a refreshingly straightforward approach to the action sequences. He keeps the movie’s pace brisk, but knows when to slow things down for a breather. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed Thor, I think that The Dark World edges it ever so slightly because I felt more invested in Thor’s struggle this time out because there was more at stake on a personal level for the character what with his family personally attacked in a way that really hit home more than anything in the first movie. I was also pleasantly surprised at the amped up science fiction element with spacecraft flying around blasting lasers at each other and how this was seamlessly blended in with the more traditional mythological aspects. Once again, Marvel delivers a crowd-pleasing piece of rousing entertainment with a successful batting average we haven’t seen the likes of since Pixar’s glory days.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Dead Man

BLOGGER'S NOTE: A slightly shorter version of this article appears at the Wonders in the Dark blog for their 50 Greatest Westerns Countdown.

Dead Man (1995) is the western that I always imagined David Lynch directing if he had any inclination towards the genre. It was, in fact, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch and marked a significant evolution for the filmmaker thematically while keeping consistent stylistically with the rest of his body of work. Where his previous films managed to avoid any clear categorization, Dead Man clearly resembles a western, however, it still adheres to the road film structure that is synonymous with Jarmusch’s other efforts. Dead Man also continued his preoccupation with outsiders in its depiction of the misadventures of William Blake (Johnny Depp), a meek accountant who travels to the decaying industrial town of Machine with the promise of employment. When he is subsequently rebuffed by his prospective employer, he finds himself on the run after a confrontation with a former prostitute (Mili Avital) and her jealous ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne). Blake ends up with a bullet lodged near his heart and meets a Native American called Nobody (Gary Farmer). Together they make not only a physical journey to the West Coast, but also a mystical, almost metaphysical one as well.

Jarmusch establishes a disquieting, almost Lynchian tone right from the get-go with sounds of machinery clanking and the steam hissing of the locomotive that takes Blake to Machine. It’s as if the director is suggesting that the Industrial Age is making its way out west, that it is as inevitable as Blake’s journey – a slow march to his own demise. The first (and only) person to speak with Blake on the train is its boilerman played by a coal-stained Crispin Glover who acts and speaks like he just came in from a David Lynch film to take a brief respite in Jarmusch’s. The man speaks rather cryptically, but is actually prophetically describing the last scene in the film. He rather ominously refers to Machine as “hell” and the “end of the line,” warning Blake that he might just die out there before many of the train car’s passengers suddenly fire their guns out the window at passing buffalo. This rather enigmatic prologue sets the mood for the rest of Dead Man and immerses us in a decidedly nihilistic world where life is brutal and short.

As Blake approaches Dickinson’s metal works factory, Jarmusch’s establishing shot is of an imposing structure, smoke billowing out of it. It’s certainly a nightmarish vision, which is reinforced by Blake’s journey through the town. There is a building whose façade is covered with animal skulls, their hides lying in piles out front. A horse urinates on the road and a prostitute is performing oral sex on a man (Gibby Haynes) who points a gun at Blake when he looks at him. Jarmusch presents much of the familiar iconography of the frontier town seen in countless westerns, but there is something not quite right about the place. Blake encounters outright hostility at every turn. The only person who shows Blake any bit of kindness is a former prostitute and she is soon accidentally killed by her ex-boyfriend.


Fortunately, this oppressive mood is punctuated by moments of levity, namely in the form of Robert Mitchum’s ridiculously macho John Dickinson, who talks to a big stuffed bear in his office instead of the three hired guns he’s brought in to find and catch Blake after he kills the factory owner’s son. Mitchum’s presence bridges the gap from classic Hollywood cinema, as the actor was active during that time, and the revisionist western in the way his character is portrayed. Dickinson is a sly parody of the traditional western tough guy, but the actor plays it straight in way that suggests Jarmusch is at once celebrating and critiquing the genre.

Dead Man opens up, both figuratively and literally, when Blake meets Nobody as he tries to dig out the bullet that is lodged near the accountant’s heart. Gary Farmer gives the film a rare, unfiltered portrayal of Native Americans. Not only does he rescue Blake, prolonging his life, but he is also the most intelligent, well-spoken character in the film. He quotes the poetry of William Blake (much to the so-called cultured accountant’s confusion) and is savvy enough to know that they are being followed by Dickinson’s hired guns. He’s about as far as one can get from the stereotypical savage usually portrayed in classic westerns, often by caucasions. In fact, Farmer is himself a Cayuga and also speaks in Cree and Blackfoot languages, which Jarmusch refuses to subtitle thereby having dialogue that only Native Americans will understand and appreciate. Nobody’s backstory, which explains not only his name, but where he developed his love of Blake’s poetry, is fascinating and tragic. Like Blake, Nobody is an outsider who doesn’t fit in anywhere.

In rather sharp contrast, all the white men in Dead Man are either ignorant or downright savage, bickering and fighting amongst themselves. Take the three men that Dickinson hires to find Blake. Johnny “The Kid” Pickett (Eugene Byrd) is a young bounty hunter out to gain a reputation for himself, Conway Twill (Michael Wincott), is a motormouth in love with the sound of his own voice, and Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), is a ruthless cannibal. In some respects, they echo the three hapless escape convicts from Down by Law (1986) as sources of humor. They are almost upstaged, or at least out-weirded, by another trio of rather eccentric fur traders played by Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton and Jared Harris and who may have been out in the wilderness a little too long. These three characters are grotesque parodies that come dangerously close to breaking the hypnotic spell Jarmusch worked so hard to achieve up to that point, but he maintains the tricky balancing act and this scene actually rescues Dead Man from becoming too overloaded with the pretention of its overtly arthouse look.


Jarmusch had been carrying around a lot of notes for what would become Dead Man for years and had even collaborated with screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop) on a cowboy epic called Ghost Dog. For research on Dead Man, he had been reading about American Indians and while taking a break, started re-reading Willam Blake’s poetry. Jarmusch was struck by how similar Blake’s stuff was with what he had been reading about native tribes. He decided to incorporate Blake into his film. As often happens when writing a script for his films, Jarmusch wrote the two main characters with two specific actors in mind: Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer. Jarmusch had known Depp for some time, having met him while shooting Night On Earth (1992) with the actor’s then-girlfriend, Winona Ryder. They had remained friends over the years and Jarmusch felt that the character of William Blake was ideally suited for Depp’s talents.

Jarmusch had seen Farmer in a Canadian film called Powwow Highway (1989) and really liked what the actor had done with his role in that movie. And so, with that performance in mind, Jarmusch wrote the character of Nobody for Farmer. Nobody avoids the usual pitfalls that befall most Native American characters. This was very important for Jarmusch who wanted to get away from the Hollywood stereotype: “I wanted to make an Indian character who wasn’t either A) the savage that must be eliminated, the force of nature that’s blocking the way for industrial progress, or B) the noble innocent that knows all and is another cliché. I wanted him to be a complicated human being.” Fortunately, Farmer brings to his role a mix of anger, humor and wonder that makes Nobody one of the most fascinating characters in Dead Man.

On the technical side of things, Jarmusch scored a real coup by not only reuniting with cinematographer Robby Muller, but he also convinced musician Neil Young to compose and perform the film’s soundtrack. Young’s eerie, minimalist score perfectly complements Muller’s atmospheric black and white photography to create a grungy, dirty world that looks like someone actually went back in time and shot the entire film in the 19th century. Jarmusch met Young backstage at a concert in Arizona during a day off from filming. To record the score, the musician set up everything in a big warehouse with monitors and equipment running to a remote truck. Jarmusch remembers that Young, “recorded it direct to the picture, straight through the film like old-school accompaniment to a silent picture. He did that three times in two days. He wouldn't allow anyone to stop the recording session or the picture. That's very odd. It was Neil's idea, and it's a very Neil Young kind of approach.”


Dead Man premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995 to a warm reaction from the European media and a predictably mixed reaction from the American press. In an effort to reach a broader audience, Jarmusch signed a deal with Miramax to distribute his film. However, the filmmaker clashed with the studio's headstrong owner, Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to change some of the content of the film to make it more marketable. Jarmusch said in an interview, “I did not expect Dead Man to be a commercial success. But I wanted it handled in a classy way. And it was handled, as one critic put it, with tongs by Miramax ... he bought a finished film; and then wanted me to change it. This was insulting to me and, ultimately, I felt punished  –  because I didn't do what he wanted, he didn't distribute the film in a classy way.”

Dead Man received mostly negative to mixed reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave it one-and-a-half out of four stars and famously wrote, “Jim Jarmusch is trying to get at something here, and I don’t have a clue what it is. Are the machines of the East going to destroy the nature of the West? Is the white man doomed, and is the Indian his spiritual guide to the farther shore? Should you avoid any town that can’t use another accountant?” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “When Dead Man is imagining the Wild West as an infernal landscape of death, it is furiously alive. When it tries to reflect on those images, it begins to nod out.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Yet the film’s meandering quirkiness is, finally, a big bore, the desperate ploy of a filmmaker who is threatening to vanish down the rabbit hole of his avant-chic attitudes.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “His [Jarmusch] revisionist message, while gussied up in flip metaphysical finery, is essentially that of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven: The frontier was a hellhole.” However, on Salon.com, Greil Marcus called Dead Man, “the best movie of the end of the 20th century,” while also praising Neil Young’s soundtrack.

With Dead Man, Jarmusch filters the western through a decidedly idiosyncractic approach that includes deliberate, off-kilter pacing, an experimental soundtrack scored by Neil Young, and several characters playfully named after figures in 20th century American culture that provoked film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to dub it an “Acid Western” in his review for the Chicago Reader. As he points out, the film subverted several conventions of classic westerns to “conjure up a crazed version of autodestructive white America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins.” Early on in the film, Blake has bedded down with a former prostitute and afterwards he finds her gun underneath a pillow. He asks her rather naïvely, "Why do you have this?" to which she replies, "Because this is America." This pretty much sums up one of Dead Man's central themes – America was born out of violence and continues to be that way, as if, despite all the modern innovations and conveniences, it continues on in the same wild, untamed spirit of the frontier west.



SOURCES

Chiose, Simona. “Dead Man Talking.” The Globe and Mail, May 23, 1996.

McKenna, Kristine. “Dead Man Talking.” Los Angeles Times. May 5, 1996.

Pulver, Andrew. "Indie Reservation." The Guardian. March 31, 2000.

Rea, Steven. “How William Blake Got Himself into a Picture.” Philadelphia Inquirer. May 12, 1996.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Acid Western.” Chicago Reader. June 26, 1996.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “A Gun Up Your Ass: An Interview with Jim Jarmusch.” Cineaste, vol. XXII, no. 2, 1996.