Dead Man

Directed by Jim Jarmusch.Starring Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer. Rated restricted.

Opens Friday, May 24, at the Granville 7

Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch's latest essay on human beings and their lovable stupidity, has one of the best openings around: in the late 1800s, a mousy Cleveland accountant (Johnny Depp) heads west on a rickety train. Promised a job in the ominous-sounding town of Machine, as he tells the inquisitive stoker (Crispin "Uh-oh" Glover), the bespectacled easterner glimpses broken wagons and burnt-out tepees as the female passengers gradually disappear, to be replaced by increasingly rough-looking characters until no one's left but fur-covered mountain men–trappers and traders who respond to a buffalo sighting by poking their rifles out the windows and blasting away at everything that moves.

Shot in gorgeously shaded black-and-white (by Wim Wenders regular Robby M?ller), this piquant footage is edited with a calm precision that manages to subtly compress Manifest Destiny into a 10-minute time capsule, all before the title comes up. Within another half hour, you'll be wishing it had said "The End" instead.

Before that blessed signpost finally arrives, about 110 minutes later, the befuddled townie–called William Blake, just like the gol-danged poet–will be humiliated by Machine's badass boss (a wooden Robert Mitchum), shot by the boss's son (Gabriel Byrne), pursued by psychopathic bounty hunters (Lance Henriksen and Michael Wincott), and sort of saved by a well-educated American Native named Nobody (Canadian Gary Farmer, turning in the bleak tale's best performance). Other stuff happens, and there are rib-poking cameos from the likes of Iggy Pop, John Hurt, and Alfred Molina, all appearing to be as hermetically isolated as guests on a Frank Sinatra duet album.

The action, when it comes, is nasty, brutish, and long-winded, and Jarmusch enforces viewer alienation by ending every scene with a blackout, as if the film were some kind of existentialist pantomime. I guess that's what it is, although the monotonous rhythm and static line readings, for the most part, make Jean-Paul Sartre read like French farce in comparison.

Jarmusch, in cultish films like Down By Law and Night on Earth, has often walked the thin grey line between postmodern ennui and plain old timeless boredom. But who expected him to start plumbing the past for its own special emptiness? For some reason, he travels back a century to make characters posture and preen in ways that would look merely foolish or cruel in SoHo loft dwellers but here, with spurs and stringy hair, are expected to make us rub our chins in chuckling, yet vaguely mystical, appreciation. ("Oh, Jim," you're invited to think, "I'm glad you are so much smarter than me.")

Neil Young's reverb-laden guitar score, twangy and tedious at the same time, underlines Dead Man's strained hipster credentials, as does a parade of cinematic in-jokes–isn't it just so clever to have Blake pursued by marshalls named Lee and Marvin? In truth, there are some interesting ideas and images at work in this two-hour nightmare; what I resent is that Jarmusch makes us take such a dull, uncomfortable ride just to brush by these distant phantoms in the night.