Two nights ago, I watched Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man; last night, I watched the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There. So maybe the connection I’m making between the two is completely arbitrary, but the similarities – and differences – between them struck me. On the surface, both are weird-ass black-and-white movies that tackle old, mostly dead genres (the western and the classic film noir), but beyond that, they’re hardly mirrors of each other. Dead Man deliberately avoids western clichés to present something off-kilter, while The Man Who Wasn’t There faithfully reflects noir elements before pulling the rug out from underneath, but in their own way, they both put a unique spin on old genres.

For starters, the fact that they’re black-and-white in the first place signals that these movies are “different.” You pretty much don’t get to make a mass-market film in black-and-white in the U.S. these days, and both films bombed, combining for a loss of around $10 million (despite the fact that each film’s budget was smaller than the salary of a major star). Of course, the fact that both were made on the fringes – and were so cheap – let Jarmusch and the Coens get away with a hell of a lot more than they would have working in Hollywood. That starts with the look of each film, and while both are black-and-white, they don’t look all that alike. Dead Man is for the most part monochromatic and dull, while The Man Who Wasn’t There is glossy, high-contrast, and absolutely gorgeous. These are the first indications of each director’s feelings on the genres they’re working with: while you sense that the Coens are taken in by the romance of old-school Hollywood filmmaking and all it entails, it’s not hard to see that Jarmusch thinks old westerns are pretty much bullshit.

Dead Man starts off with William Blake, played by Johnny Depp, on a train heading west to the town of Machine, to start a new job after the death of his parents. Instead of playing up his pretty-boy looks, Jarmusch dresses him up in what Robert Mitchum’s character later calls a “clown suit,” a pair of round reading glasses, and a stupid-looking porkpie hat. He’s a weak, frail intellectual on his way to a hellish west, and is completely unprepared for it. The first sign that he’s getting himself into a bad place is the train fireman, played by Crispin Glover (who is pretty much a flashing neon sign that either the character, the movie, or both are gonna be weird as hell). After briefly conversing with Blake, Glover goes into a bizarre monologue. He tells Blake, among other things, that he’s on his way to hell, and that he shouldn’t trust the letter from the Dickinson company promising him a job. He also offers up this bizarre question:

Look out the window. And doesn’t this remind you of when you were in the boat, and then later that night, you were lying, looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the landscape, and you think to yourself, “Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?

The audience, and Blake himself, are likely thinking at this point, “Okay, this guy is fucking insane,” but all of this will make sense down the road, and ends up painting Glover’s character as some kind of bizarre prophet. And when Blake shows up in the town of Machine, it’s easy to see why Glover painted it in such a bad light.

Eventually, Blake finds his way to Dickinson’s, after walking through the unwelcoming main street of Machine (where he spots, among other things, a guy getting blown in an alleyway, a pistol in one hand and a bottle in the other). An underling played by John Hurt rudely informs Blake that the position was filled a month ago, and when Blake insists to speak to Dickinson personally – inspiring the laughter of everybody in the room – Hurt bemusedly grants his request. And when Dickinson pops up from behind his desk, shoves a shotgun in Blake’s face and mocks his appearance, it’s easy to understand why. Dickinson is played by Robert Mitchum in his final role, one of several indications that Jarmusch was inspired by Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, which also features Mitchum, in his most famous performance, as a creepy bad guy. That film, which was a critical and commercial bomb, was every bit as off-kilter as Dead Man, and can be read as a subversion of American mores, especially religion. Both films are deliberately artificial as hell, and in key shots, show the night sky full of stars that look about as real as those plastic ones every high school and college male was sticking to their ceilings in the ’90s. Jarmusch is doing for the western what Laughton did for America’s religious values: poking holes in the myth and filling them with something much less romanticized.

Robert Mitchum: badass and crazy 'til the day he died.

This is evident in the very next sequence. Blake is soundly rejected by Dickinson, and finds his way to a bar to spend his last bit of money on a bottle of whiskey. He heads out, and sees a beautiful woman (Mili Avital) being shoved into the mud by a burly man (who jeers “We liked you more when you was a whore” – stay classy, dude). He helps her up and walks her back to her room, where they briefly chat – mainly about the paper flowers she assembles and sells – and then have sex. Most movies would set this up as a film-long romance, but it’s not five minutes later that she’s shot through the heart by a pissed-off ex-fiancé, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne). The bullet goes right through her and into Blake’s chest; shocked, Blake picks up the gun the woman kept under her pillow and hits Charlie in the neck, who falls to the ground and slowly bleeds out.

It’s a shocking scene, both for the suddenness of it all and the brutality, with a potential romantic interest dead and a man bleeding to death on the floor. Not to mention the fact that Blake, who has spent the whole movie to this point being pissed on, has just been severely wounded for no reason. And worse, the man he’s just killed turns out to be Dickinson’s son, which results in Dickinson hiring a bunch of contract killers and posting reward posters all around the area for his death or capture.

What follows isn’t a typical western white-hat-vs.-black-hat showdown; instead, we’re treated to an existential journey, as Blake tries to cope with his fate. He’s dying, but soldiers on, unwilling or unable to admit it, while an assortment of bounty hunters (in particular, the three hired by Dickinson, played by Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, and Eugene Byrd) trail him. His only ally is a friendly (and very fat) Indian, who thinks Blake is the famous poet of the same name, and tries to help him on his journey. He tends Blake’s wounds, lets him know the danger he’s gotten himself into, offers up bits of (the other) Blake’s poetry as words of wisdom, and repeatedly insults Blake with a rejoinder of “Stupid fucking white man.” The insult is funny enough on its own, highlighting how utterly out of his element Blake is, but it’s as much addressed to audiences and to former western filmmakers, who understood the west only as myth and not for the harsh, brutal place it was in reality. Which isn’t to suggest Dead Man is in any way “realistic” (there’s a scene later in the film in which Henriksen stomps on the head of one of Blake’s victims, and the effect looks about as real as something out of a b-horror flick), but it is far less romantic than most of its ilk – even when compared to other revisionist westerns, like McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Unforgiven. There’s a poetry to it, but it’s postmodern through and through.

Contrast this to the manner in which the Coens treat noir. While both films are rife with black comedy, Jarmusch’s balance is more black, less comedy. The Coens, on the other hand, lean towards the tragically absurd instead of the absurdly tragic. Ed Crane, an unambitious barber (played perfectly deadpan by Billy Bob Thornton), spends his days cutting hair and smoking cigarettes in the barbershop his talkative feeb of a brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badalucco), owns. His wife Doris (Frances McDormand) works as an accountant at a department store, Nirdlinger’s, and drinks heavily. When Ed and Doris have Doris’ boss, “Big” Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), and his wife Ann (Katherine Borowitz) over for dinner one night, Ed and Ann sit mostly silent while Doris and Dave yuk it up. It becomes clear to Ed that Dave and his wife are having an affair; he even says so on the narration, and what’s more, he doesn’t really give a shit. But when an obnoxious salesman comes through Ed and Frank’s shop one night and shoots off at the mouth about an investment opportunity – dry cleaning – Crane senses an opportunity, and blackmails Dave for the necessary $10,000.

You can, of course, see where this is going. Dave confides in Ed about his infidelity (but doesn’t mention who it is he’s been sleeping with), and asks him for advice. He also reveals that some loudmouth salesman came through town asking for capital for an investment opportunity – dry-cleaning, wouldn’t you know it – and that he had intended to use the $10,000 to expand the business, but is trapped now. But Ed goes through with it anyway, because, hey, this guy was sleeping with his wife, so fuck him. Unfortunately for Ed, everything pretty much goes to shit not long afterwards. Murders are committed, the wrong people are blamed, and everything works outself out in precisely the wrong way for Ed to ever have a chance of escaping the trap he’s set for himself. This would all make a great classic noir, but the Coens throw several curveballs, including a subplot centered around Crane’s attraction to a teenage girl (Scarlett Johannson), Ann’s bizarre suspicions involving UFOs and the government (mostly dealt with in an extraordinarily tense and creepy scene on Crane’s porch late one night), and so on. The Coens are so good at what they do that I was on the edge of my seat throughout, but my lasting impression was of how crazy the whole thing is. It’s one of the strangest movies from a filmmaking duo that prides themselves on being off-beat and unique, and what’s more, it never feels contrived, despite the high-concept nature of the whole production. When the climactic sequence of the film involves Crane crashing his car because the girl in the passenger seat insists on giving him a blowjob, you know you’re watching something special. The Coens almost always infuse their films with an element of black comedy (No Country being the only exception offhand), but they seem to revel in it more than ever here.

If Jarmusch’s film can be read as a serious – albeit darkly humorous – takedown of western myths, the Coens’ treatment of noir is more akin to loving homage. It revels in many of noir’s best aspects – the winding plots, the high-contrast cinematography, etc. – but they’re not afraid to make fun of the absurdity of it all, either. In many ways, The Man Who Wasn’t There is like a modern-day Detour – but made by much more skilled directors, and with a self-consciousness lacking in that film. So while each film is working within a genre context, and playing strongly against type in bizarre, darkly comic ways, the manner in which they do so – and the overall effect – is extremely different. Seeing them back-to-back may have inspired the comparison in the first place, but it also highlighted the major differences between the two as well. Both are new takes on old genres, both are black-and-white, both are hilarious, and both are brilliant – but the similarities don’t run too much deeper than that.

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