In a nutshell, Bored and Dangerous says: “This is arthouse cinema made for the mainstream. It’s the kind of movie that lets the uninitiated dip their toe into the alternative cinema waters, and not be immediately scared away by high falootin’, intellectual, or existential ideas or filmic rule breaking.”
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”
It’s hard to comprehend now, but back in 2003, it was huge surprise and novelty when Johnny Depp appeared as Jack Sparrow in the introduction to the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Before then, he was the brooding, serious artist of Hollywood. He was the former teen heartthrob who gave up Tinsel Town, moved to Europe and appeared in movies where words like “independent”, “arthouse” and “weird” we’re used in the descriptions. Movies like Dead Man.
On a train full of gun wielding wild men dressed in rugged furs, one man stands out in his impeccable suit, hat and spectacles. Bill Blake (Depp) is obviously a man out of place. Things don’t get any more civilised when the train rolls into the town of Machine. Whores turn ticks in the street, while everyone gives off a feeling of aggression mixed with suspicion. When Blake walks into the accounting office where he has secured a job, he’s finally surrounded by men who look like his refined equals. But any feeling of belonging is fleeting. It turns out he’s over a month late, his job no longer exists, and Jackson (Robert Mitchum), his gun wielding, cigar chomping boss, has no interest in letting the tardiness slide.
Dejected and with nowhere to go, Bill heads to the local saloon to drink his troubles away, if only for one night. When he ends up in the arms and bed of a local woman, things only get worse. Her fiancé bursts in and shoots her dead, leading Bill to fire back in retaliation, killing the scorned fiancé. He runs away, terrified, only to wake the next morning to find an American Indian (Gary Farmer as Nobody) trying to dig a bullet out of his chest. Too close to his heart to remove, the Indian claims he will help Bill release his soul. Meanwhile, back in town, it’s revealed that the dead finance is none other than Jackson’s son, who spins the story of the deaths to accuse Bill of double murder. With a big cash reward promised, Jackson sets bounty hunters on Bill’s trail.
1995 was prime outsider time for Depp, deep in his artistic period. And director Jim Jarmusch has never been seen as a mainstream film maker. With that combination, the black and white photography, and the opening scene aboard the train, set to Neil Young’s minimalist, sometimes atonal score, I thought I had a good handle on the kind of alternative cinema Dead Man was about to serve up. Add to that an existential monologue from Crispin Glover, one over Hollywood’s greatest nut bags, and it all seemed so typically arthouse. But once the story gets going, it’s surprisingly straight forward and conventional.
Even more surprising is Depp’s straight forward, conventional performance. These days, pretty much every Depp role relies on hats, accents and broad, physical affectations. Here, Bill Blake is an everyman, out of his element in a wild, new frontier. Sure, it gets dark, and philosophical and a little obtuse, but in the end, it’s a simple fish out water, wrong man / wrong time / wrong place kind of movie.
Watching Dead Man, it’s obvious why it even made it to my own small, Aussie town back in the day. This is arthouse cinema made for the mainstream. It’s the kind of movie that lets the uninitiated dip their toe into the alternative cinema waters, and not be immediately scared away by high falootin’, intellectual, or existential ideas, or filmic rule breaking. And I like all of that about it. Like Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, it’s proof that you can set a tone very different to the mainstream, and tell stories not common in the mainstream, without looking down your nose or alienating the mainstream.