The 50 greatest westerns

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We count down the greatest westerns of all time

6

Dead Man (1995)

Dir Jim Jarmusch (Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover)

Songs of innocence and experience

Easily the bleakest film on a very bleak list, Jim Jarmusch’s intoxicating and dismally poetic exploration of physical and spiritual death sees Johnny Depp as the coincidently named traveller, William Blake. He’s a meek and mild bookkeeper whose journey into the abyss commences with a strangely confrontational tête-à-tête with a train fireman played by a blackface Crispin Glover. It then proceeds to more unsettling as the minutes tick by. He arrives at the hellish industry settlement of Machine, only to be forced straight from it as a wanted man when he catches a bullet in his chest and steals the prize stallion from factory owner Robert Mitchum… and murders his son.

Though it quotes liberally (and jokingly) from the book of western lore, the structure of Jarmusch’s film is more like an epic poem – the tall tales of Chaucer infused with the macabre gothic of Poe – while its style comes over as a malevolent homage to Tarkovsky’s bucolic quest for spiritual enlightenment, ‘Andrei Rublev’, or to Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. Blake is helped along his deathly trail (which takes in a who’s-who cast of American supporting character actors) by a Native American outcast called Nobody (Gary Farmer). A brilliant scene in which he’s scrambling through the brush calling ‘Nobody! Nobody! Nobody!’ encapsulates the film’s strange and surreal beauty. DJ


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