Review: DEAD MAN (R)

Johnny Depp in "Dead Man."


U.S. Release Date: May 10, 1996

Running Time: 121 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, sexual content, violence)

Cast: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover, Robert Mitchum, Michael Wincott, Lance Henriksen, Iggy Pop, Eugene Byrd

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Producer: Demetra J. MacBride

Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 19, 2011

Dead Man is a vastly uncompromising Western. It has all of the typical Western archetypes, yes, but the way in which it goes about them is extremely unorthodox.

The film is centered on a young Johnny Depp, who plays William Blake (not to be confused with the poet, although that will come into play later on). Blake is on his way to the town of Machine for a job that has been promised to him. On the train, he is warned that his grave awaits him in Machine. Of course, he pays no attention and only treats the warning with mild shock.

When he arrives, he is informed by the rifle-toting boss Mr. Dickinson (played by Robert Mitchum) that the job is no longer available. Depp, disgruntled and betrayed, leaves and heads to a bar. There, he meets a pretty girl (Mili Avital) and the two set off to her apartment to engage in sexual activities. But their fun is interrupted by an angry ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne), who kills the girl and then is killed by Blake. Blake is wounded in the process and escapes through a nearby window, just before he collapses.

He awakes to an Indian named Nobody who believes him to be the real William Blake, the poet William Blake. Nobody takes Blake under his wing for a spiritual journey and awakening. Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Machine, the man that Blake killed happens to be Mr. Dickinson’s son. Dickinson learns that it was Blake that killed his son, most likely out of anger for the unavailable job, and hires a trio of bounty hunters to find and kill Blake.

Now, that’s where the plot actually begins. But it delves into much, much more. More than I can possible explain with words. Jim Jarmusch is a director that always has a purpose behind everything that he does, but here in “Dead Man”, I just can’t figure it out.

In fact, Dead Man is so unorthodox about the way that it goes about everything that I lost interest rapidly, more and more so as the film progressed. It turns into a wild and almost acid-like trip, but without the flamboyant colors that an LSD-trip would contain, as it is in black-and-white. So, it’s more like some weird lucid dream. I hated the look of the film in general. The cinematography was bland and uninteresting, the characters looked ridiculous, and the black-and-white was gritty and unappealing. I understand what Jarmusch is trying to do in defying the traditional laws of the Western film, but he took it too far. Dead Man is essentially a Western in drag–colorless drag, that is.

Of course, Depp is good in his lead role. He remains to be such a formidable actor and can mold quite well into any character that he portrays. I also liked Michael Wincott and Lance Henriksen in their bounty hunter roles. They had good chemistry and could be quite funny at times. As for the rest of the cast… Eh, not so much.

By saying this, I’m not saying that Jarmusch is an inept filmmaker. He’s had many a great film, but this is most definitely not one of them. I understand that this is probably considered as a “love it or hate it” film, and while I didn’t exactly hate it, I didn’t quite care for it.

RATING: 2/4

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Review: THERE WILL BE BLOOD (R)

Daniel Day-Lewis gives an astounding performance in "There Will Be Blood."

U.S. Release Date: January 25, 2008 (wide)

Running Time: 158 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (A scene of violence)

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciaran Hinds, Kevin J. O’Connor, Dillon Freasier, Russell Harvard

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Scott Rudin, Joanne Sellar, Daniel Lupi

Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson, based upon the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / August 3, 2011

Paul Thomas Anderson is one the best filmmakers to come about in the industry in a long, long while. His work is always so weird and eccentric, yet somehow it manages to be perceived as mainstream. His latest work, There Will Be Blood, is either a very sophisticated horror film or a completely unorthodox Western.

In the lead role is Daniel Day-Lewis, who won a well-deserved Academy Award for his performance. There’s no need to provide you with a plot synopsis because there’s virtually no plot at all. The film focuses on the life of Daniel Plainview, a man who starts his own oiling business. He makes promises to the locals of wealth and fortune, but doesn’t keep them. Over time, he is enveloped by greed and corruption as he gradually accumulates wealth and power and they get nothing. Eventually, he becomes ethically and morally insubordinate. He cuts all emotional ties with any living thing. Essentially, he is the definition of the word “evil”. Wealth has exposed his true nature.

Without a doubt, Daniel Day-Lewis has the performance of the year, the decade, and his career. He holds nothing back here, creating the most ultimately convincing character I’ve ever seen in a movie. There are rumors that he spent years preparing for this role and I’m not all that surprised. He changes everything about himself as a person–his speech, gait, mannerisms. To watch him first in real life and then in this movie is like watching two completely different people. It’s absolutely astounding.

The other Oscar-winner was Robert Elswit, who has some beautiful cinematography. Those long meandering shots that sort of skirt along the ground are the effect of expert camerawork and Elswit’s win was well-deserved. I found the score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to be excellent as well. It makes the movie almost as much as Day-Lewis’ performance, giving us an eerie and haunting backdrop. What a surprise it wasn’t nominated.

I suspect that many will become bored by the film’s frustratingly-slow pace. At times, the films meanders. The final forty minutes are composed of two scenes. Anderson doesn’t feel the need to excite us: he shows us what he wants us to see and we sort of have to deal with it.

In all of my cinematic experiences, There Will Be Blood has managed to be one of the most profound and disturbing ones yet. It is as terrifying as they come, not manifesting its horror with violence and gore, but with true-to-life acting.

RATING: 3.5/4

Review: THE PROPOSITION (R)

A filthy Guy Pearce in "The Proposition."

By STEPHEN EARNEST / December 7, 2010

Over the past decade or so, there has been a constant revitalization of the Western genre. Something new gets added to the mix, raising the bar. For 2005, it was John Hillcoat’s gritty and nightmarish debut The Proposition, a truly different kind of Western.

The film takes place in the heart of the Australian outback during the late 1800’s, although at first glance, we can’t tell the difference between it or the American Old West. Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone) has been forced to relocate from England to the outback to bring law and order to the land. He finds interest in the notorious Burns’ gang, a gang of brothers whom were recently involved in the brutal rape and murder of a local family. Stanley isn’t as concerned with the two younger brothers as he is with the oldest, Arthur (Danny Huston), who is a violent and dangerous sociopath. The younger brothers, Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey (Richard Wilson), are soon captured after a firefight and Stanley makes a deal with Charlie. If Charlie finds and kills his older brother within nine days, then he and Mike will be pardoned and set free. If not, Mike will be hanged on Christmas Day.

There are many things that The Proposition does right. The writer, Nick Cave (who also does the score, but we’ll get to that later), gives each character an unprecedented amount of depth. Charlie does not simply take revenge upon his brother because the story needs him to; he does because he needs to. He sees the kind of man his brother truly is and harbors feelings of resentment towards him for the danger he has but their younger brother Mikey in. But while doing this, Cave also gives us a little bit of Arthur’s perspective to make us see his side of things.

Another thing that Cave does right is by giving each of the characters moral principles. More than often, these characters are put in morality-based scenarios, where they have to decide what is right and what is wrong, even if it goes against instinct.

The director, John Hillcoat, does an adequate job of displaying everything, but in an off-kilter way. He does not follow the rules of the typical Western format; he uses unconventional methods, resulting in a rather unsettling experience. The score by Nick Cave is unique, but it doesn’t suit the tone of the film. There are bits and pieces that are memorable, but for the most part, it’s entirely distracting and even somewhat annoying.

If my senses aren’t failing me, I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed by what The Proposition has to offer. It’s an entertaining tale, and one of the finest Westerns in a long, long while.

RATING: 3.5/4