With Dead Man, his first period piece, Jim Jarmusch imagined the nineteenth-century American West as an existential wasteland, delivering a surreal reckoning with the ravages of industrialization, the country’s legacy of violence and prejudice, and the natural cycle of life and death. Accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) has hardly arrived in the godforsaken outpost of Machine before he’s caught in the middle of a fatal lovers’ quarrel. Wounded and on the lam, Blake falls under the watch of the outcast Nobody (Gary Farmer), who guides his companion on a spiritual journey, teaching him to dispense poetic justice along the way. Featuring austerely beautiful black-and-white photography by Robby Müller and a live-wire score by Neil Young, Dead Man is a profound and unique revision of the western genre.
In a very welcome surprise the Criterion Collection presents Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist western Dead Man on Blu-ray, sporting an all new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation taken from a new 4K restoration and scanned from the 35mm original negative. It is presented here in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc.
I haven’t seen any of the previous Blu-ray editions (released by Echo Bridge and then Lionsgate) so can’t compare this release to them but it is highly doubtful either came anywhere near looking as exceptional as what is delivered here. The image looks astonishing, delivering an unbelievable amount of detail in every frame. You can clearly make out every individual hair and bit of stubble on the actors in close-ups, stray hairs on clothing, just about every leaf and blade of grass in the backgrounds, and every bit of bark on the trees. Everything is just so unbelievably crisp and clear. We also get to clearly see every grimy detail in the machine shop at the opening or the surrounding town, all of it just pops clearly off screen. The film’s black and white photography also translates well, with superb gray scale and tonal shifts, along with nice, bright whites (without blooming) and rich, deep blacks, without hurting shadow details.
Grain, though not all that heavy, is rendered well, dancing about very cleanly without any noise present. There are a number of smokier shots, whether in the machine shop or during the aftermath of gun shots, that are also rendered cleanly and natural, no banding or any other artifact present. And shockingly there isn’t a single blemish that I can recall, the restoration work looking to have picked off everything. It really is an shockingly good looking presentation, a really wonderful surprise in the end, and fans of the film are going to be thrilled with it.
The film comes with a fairly robust 2.0 surround sound track, presented in DTS-HD MA. Dialogue and sound effects sound excellent and clear with superb depth and fidelity. But the real showcase here is Neil Young’s score, which is particularly dynamic and sharp, making excellent use of the entire sound field. There can be what sounds like some distortion in some of the guitar rffs but this is (more or less) intentional. I’m somewhat surprised there isn’t a 5.1 option but it’s still wonderfully mixed and sounds pretty great in the end.
Previous North American releases didn’t feature a lot of supplementary material, at best a music video and a collection of deleted scenes, which do also make an appearance here. But Criterion really does put some excellent effort into this and packs in some really great material.
First item up is what is labeled as a select scene audio commentary, featuring production designer Bob Ziembicki and sound mixer Drew Kunin, the two doing the track over what I assume is Skype (or something similar) with Ziembicki in Los Angeles and Kunun in New York. Though there are some lengthy gaps to be found it actually does spread across the entirety of the film and has more heft to it than other select scene tracks. The two do bring more technical observations and topics to the track, going over the sets, getting the appropriate costumes and background objects, and finding the appropriate locations (which became limited when winter started coming in). They focus on specific things like life size portrait of Mitchum’s character, and also address some intended similarities between certain sets (the town of Machine and the native village were intentionally made to look similar) and then touch on the research put into the film. Interestingly, though, the two also talk a bit about their interpretations of the film, comment on Jarmusch’s visual style, and even address some of the criticisms brought up against the film, like the violence (they explain how they don’t find it gratuitous and what Jarmusch intended with it). I was expecting a very skimpy track since it was labeled as “select-scene” and then I also expected it to be entirely technical but it ends up being a rather perceptive and incredibly engaging audio commentary. Unfortunately the dead spaces aren’t cleanly edited with chapter stops so it’s not easy to just jump through when things go dead. Some dead spaces can be lengthy but they still do talk over most of the film.
Director Jim Jarmusch then provides another Q&A exclusive to this release, answering questions that fans had written in to Criterion late last year. 31 questions are answered over a span of 48-minutes. I usually try to list all names of the participants but as I wrote them down I realized I was probably going to misspell most of them so I don’t really want to embarrass myself (more so than usual). Amusingly both Bill Hader (yes, that Bill Hader) and director Alan Arkush (of Caddyshack II fame) write in, Hader asking if he can be in one of his movies. These are fun and Jarmusch is, as always, a good sport. He plays along with some of the joke questions (“have you seen my glasses?”), answers the “what’s your favourite…” questions (favourite food, favourite Earth, Wind, and Fire song, favourite Dolemite movie, etc.), and tries to answer as best he can the questions specific to the themes in Dead Man, what his intentions were with certain casting and other decisions in the film, and so on. He gets a few questions about Robert Mitchum unsurprisingly (including if Mitchum sang a Calypso song) and recalls his fond memories of working with the actor (and he admits being a bit nervous and star struck). He also answers a question about dealing with Miramax and Harvery Weinstein’s demands of cutting the film, which Jarmusch of course would not do. Again this is a great addition and I’m so happy Jarmusch is willing to do them. I also appreciate how, even behind his rather dry delivery, he always sounds so genuinely touched when someone compliments him on his work.
As great as that feature was we get an even better one in a new interview with actor Gary Farmer, which may also be one of the best interviews I’ve watched lately. For 27-minutes Farmer covers a wide range of topics, going over his early acting career, having his own vision, how he came to work on the film, how he collaborated with the director, came to meet Neil Young (and by the sounds of it got him involved in this film) and the difficulties of being a Native actor in the film industry (he explains he’s always an “outsider” in the business). It’s really just a wonderful discussion, a very honest, very funny, and incredibly insightful one and if Criterion comes to put out Ghost Dog I would love to see him come back (though he does talk briefly about that film).
Criterion then includes three audio recordings featuring Iggy Pop, Alfred Molina, and Mili Avital reading William Blake’s work over location photos. It runs over 7-minutes and features Pop reading from Proverbs of Hell, Molina reading from Everlasting Gospel, and Avital reading from Auguries of Innocence. We then get 15-minutes’ of deleted scenes, looking to come from a video source. Though there are some extended bits featuring Depp and Farmer most of the deleted footage revolves around the bounty hunters played by Eugene Byrd, Lance Henriksen, and Michael Wincott. We also get a lengthy scene showing how one character meets his end after only getting a glimpse of what happened afterwards in the finished film. I’m assuming these are the same deleted scenes available on previous editions.
Criterion then includes 25-minutes’ worth of footage of Neil Young recording the score for the film. I’ve heard about this but it’s fascinating to get some of the actual footage. Young set up in a warehouse and with a rough cut of the film playing on a handful of screens he would move from instrument to instrument and just make it up there (he apparently only did two sessions). We also get a music video, which is cut with some of that recording footage and footage from the film. An alternate audio track features Johnny Depp reading from Blake’s (I think) Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Depp doesn’t start reading until about a minute-and-a-half in.
The disc then closes with a photo gallery called Black and White in Color, which presents a number of production photos and crew photos, most in colour (Depp’s suit looks even more ridiculous in colour), followed by the film’s original theatrical trailer. The included booklet then features two essays: one by Amy Taubin on the film’s poetic style and how it relates to Jarmusch’s other films (saying it has more in common with Stranger than Paradise than any other film), and the other Ben Ratliff on the film’s unique score.
Of course it would have been great to get any of the other performers from the film to talk about it here but despite that absence this ends up still being an incredibly satisfying set of features. Everything on here is worth going through.
Criterion really goes the distance on this one, delivering on all fronts. It looks and sounds great and provides some great supplementary material. An easy recommendation.