Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch)

Rating: ** (out of ****)

I'm not, as a rule, very keen on overtly symbolic, metaphorical, or allegorical tales; emblematic devices, in my view, properly belong in a work's subtext, where they can be ferreted out by those who seek further insight and ignored by those who do not. Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch's first feature since 1992's disappointing Night on Earth, has no subtext -- the subtext is the text, and the film's intentionally ludicrous and anachronistic world set my teeth on edge from the get-go. Unless you find the notion of 19th-century characters speaking in modern vernacular inherently funny (I don't), or are amused by the notion of a "stock" American Indian character dispensing absurd homilies and saying things like "What is your name, stupid fucking white man?" (I wasn't), there's little to engage you on a moment-to-moment basis. Your only recourse is to try to determine what everything means -- what genre conventions are being subverted; what aspects of contemporary society Jarmusch is using the Old West to criticize; why the protagonist is named William Blake, and his faithful Indian companion known as Nobody (lots of "Who's on First"-style gags, as you might have guessed); and so forth. There may be very interesting answers to these and other questions, but frankly I was too bored by the film to care to think about them much. As usual, Robby Müller's cinematography is outstanding, and other technical aspects, ranging from the inspired production design to Neil Young's spare, haunting score, are equally effective. What didn't work, for me, were, um, the story and the characters. In other words, Dead Man suffers from more or less the same flaws as Twister, though the two are otherwise as dissimilar as one could possibly imagine. They're two sides of the same tarnished coin: one cares more about wowing the audience with innovative special effects than about its narrative; the other cares more about impressing the audience with profound ideas than about its narrative. I respect the latter approach more than the former, but neither one makes for a very compelling movie.