Slow on the draw

Passive heroes and legends debunked ... Adam Mars-Jones on two westerns in which violence is usually accidental
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The Independent Culture
WILD BILL Walter Hill (nc)

DEAD MAN Jim Jarmusch (18)

Two films this week explore the mythology of the American West. Each film sets out to debunk and then rebunk, to shoot down one set of illusions and replace it with another, and both make use of the dwindling talent of John Hurt in the supporting cast. Walter Hill may have won an award in 1994 - the Golden Boot - for his contribution to western film, but Wild Bill won't win him another, unless it's made of lead. Jim Jarmusch, on the other hand, retains most of his annoying mannerisms, but his Dead Man is only a few script drafts or some ruthless re-editing away from being rather good.

Wild Bill is drawn from two sources - a novel by Pete Dexter and a play by Thomas Babe - but the director, by boiling them down into a single screenplay, ends up with a confusing composite. This Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Bridges) is both a Clint Eastwood-style laconic sharpshooter, who will leave you alone unless you touch his hat or watch, who doesn't start violence but is good at finishing it, and a Peckinpah gunman with mid- life crisis, tormented by the pains of glaucoma and wondering where the hell things went wrong. In an early scene, Wild Bill kills his deputy by mistake and weeps over the body, but it's all so sudden that we've not been introduced to the dead man as a person. What might have been a big moment is almost embarrassing.

There is also the theme of fact versus legend, hardly a new one in the classic western. Wild Bill is plagued by people telling him distorted versions of his own exploits, people who are only disappointed when he corrects them. But Hill also gives us a voice-over from an English friend of Hickok (the John Hurt role), who fancies up the facts all over again with comments like, "the theatre of Bill's life had come to demand that he walk up the centre of a muddy street rather than use the boardwalk". At the film's mismanaged climax, when Bill has been ambushed - in mid- jigajig with Calamity Jane, no less - by a gang of hired guns led by a young man out to avenge dishonour done to his mother, Hurt's character pleads for his son's life, in the tones first of a cracker-barrel philosopher ("every time a hero dies we are all a little less") and then an agony aunt ("forget him and move on").

Hill mixes colour with black and white with no obvious logic. The film starts in black and white for Hickok's funeral, so it can't be representing the past, but nor is the convention reversed, with colour showing us a lively history and black and white a disappointing present. The silliest flashback, bang in the middle of the climactic scene, shows us that Wild Bill in fact tried to look after the woman from his past in whose name he is being persecuted. It's fine that he's too proud to justify himself, but if Hill can't find a better way of showing the hero's side of the story than breaking any possible tension in a big scene, then he is no longer any sort of action director.

These days it's hard to find an untruthful or dishonourable Native American in a western: in Wild Bill, even the Indians' prophesies are reliable. Bill is told that the next time he sees a fox, he will die, and what do you know? At the time of his death he's playing cards with a Brown Fox brand pack. It's almost spooky.

If Wild Bill gives us a hero who is curiously passive, baffled and brooding, the hero of Dead Man is on an altogether higher plane of inertness. He is Bill Blake, a city boy moving to the West for employment that has evaporated by the time he gets there. Soon afterwards he is wounded and on the run, without ever having a moment where he chooses this outlaw identity. For the bulk of the film he is wandering in the western wilds, tracked by bounty hunters and helped by a perversely literate Native American who thinks he is William Blake, the poet.

The first sequence of Dead Man is wonderfully promising. Johnny Depp in his city suit of big checks looks somewhere between a clown and an angel as he travels west on a train. He keeps closing his eyes, and every time he opens them he sees a different array of passengers, rough, grizzled and furred. They look at him without speaking. Neil Young's guitar wails away under the noise of the train's pistons, fading before it can be properly heard.

Then the trouble starts, with silly dialogue and the first of the film's jarring cameos, from Crispen Glover as the train's fireman. When Robert Mitchum puts in a brief appearance, at least he brings with him a huge slab of movie history, but the other familiar faces - Gabriel Byrne with a gun, Iggy Pop in a dress - take away from a film whose main appeal is perversely atmospheric.

Jarmusch goes in for plenty of lackadaisical absurdism along the way. There is casual cannibalism among the bounty hunters, one of whom sleeps with a teddy bear. Coming on the body of a marshal killed by Blake, a bounty hunter growls, "Looks like a goddamn religious icon," which is actually true, the bearded face lying in profile next to sticks from the fire radially arranged, like a crude aura. He crushes the head with his boot.

"Nobody", the literate Indian (Gary Farmer), an outcast from his tribe just as Bill is from his, is the most engaging character despite an Eric Cantona line in animal metaphor ("the eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow"). There has certainly been nothing in the western's history like the moment when he trumps a trader's religious rant with Blake's lines: "The vision of Christ that thou dost see/ Is my vision's greatest enemy."

Violence in Dead Man is often accidental - or rather providential, guns fired by mistake finding appropriate targets - and always takes place without excitement. People don't run away from a gun. They submit with a sort of ritual stoicism. All this is a refreshing contrast to what we expect. Robbie Muller's black and white photography, moreover, is highly effective, and Neil Young's gloriously ragged music makes an excellent soundtrack. If only Jim Jarmusch had tightened up the narrative a bit, to prevent something enduringly rambling from reaching the two-hour mark and so stretching viewer patience. If only, too, he wasn't so addicted to the fade-to-black trademark of the art film and guaranteed slower of a film's rhythm. Johnny Depp closes his eyes so often in Dead Man that there's a real risk audiences will find themselves doing the same.

n On general release from tomorrow