Dead Man (1995)
Dir. Jim Jarmusch
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henrikson
I’m excited to finally write about another Western for this project, as the Western genre is one of my favorite types of film to watch and think about. One of my overarching interests in college was writing about depictions of masculinity in films, and I often found the Western genre to be rich with films that explored examples of classic machismo and also depictions of traditional masculinities in crisis. As a whole, the genre has often stood for Americana, and classical American mythmaking, but individually, Western films can serve as prisms to explore the underlying tapestry that makes up these unifying myths or as powerful critiques on the societies that produced them. My favorite Westerns to think about, like Dead Man or Blazing Saddles, are revisionist Westerns, ones that challenge and critique the accepted myths of Americana and offer up alternative narratives to the settling of the West. I love the films of John Ford and John Wayne, and we’ll get to a few of those, but I more appreciate the later films of the genre that used the existing conventions of the Western to deconstruct the genre and allow some light to seep through the cracks in the linear narrative of conquest and Manifest Destiny that the Western has come to represent. Dead Man doesn’t offer much overt criticism of the Western genre or social commentary, but it does inject mysticism, psychedelia, and some trademark Jim Jarmusch “cool” into the genre.
The film opens with William Blake (Depp) onboard a train from Cleveland to the frontier town of Machine, where he has been offered a job as an accountant with the Dickinson metal works. Blake is instantly set apart from the rest of the passengers on the train, as they eye him suspiciously from beneath the brims of fur hats, clutching long guns tightly. The film’s surrealism is apparent from the opening scenes, as well, as the train’s Fireman (Crispin Glover) emerges, covered in soot, to engage in a strange conversation with Blake in which he warns the newcomer against going to the frontier. All the while, the passengers are shooting buffalo from the moving train behind the two men. Undeterred, Blake arrives in Machine, and sets off to claim his job, however, when he arrives at the metal works, his job has already been filled and he is driven from the property at gunpoint by Mr. Dickinson himself (Robert Mitchum). Without the job he was promised, and having just buried his parents in Cleveland, Blake finds himself with no money for a return ticket and no prospects, but he shows some kindness to a flower girl, Thel (Mili Avital), who in turn takes him back to her room at the local hotel. Their post-coital bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Thel’s former lover, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), who tries to shoot Blake, but instead shoots Thel when she throws himself in front of the bullet. Blake, with some difficulty, uses Thel’s gun to shoot Charlie, and then realizes that he has been shot by the bullet that passed through Thel’s chest. Wounded, he jumps out of the window and steals Charlie’s horse, riding off into the desert. When Blake comes to, he meets Nobody (Farmer), a Native American who will act as a spiritual guide for Blake as they continue into the frontier, possibly into the afterlife.
I first became aware of this film in my Sophomore or Junior year of college in a class on Westerns. I don’t believe that we screened the film in its entirety in class, but we watched a handful of clips from it, and I saw enough that I was intrigued and purchased the film on DVD. I knew Jim Jarmusch, as my Wu-Tang obsession had led me to the RZA-soundtracked Ghost Dog in high school, and Broken Flowers had been one of my favorite movies of 2004, but I hadn’t explored much into the director’s filmography beyond these and a couple of other films. Even with this cursory introduction to the director’s style and having seen some clips from the movie, Dead Man was a very weird film to me the first time I watched it. I was used to modern Westerns that called into question ideas of national identity and American exceptionalism, but Dead Man is much more inwardly focused, raising questions of personal identity, life and death, and humanity. Critics, including myself earlier in this post, have called it a psychedelic Western, and it certainly is that, but perhaps it is more accurate to think of Dead Man as an Existentialist Western. It lends itself, with its moody score and monochromatic visual presentation, to the same sorts of reflection as Existentialist philosophy. Its subject matter, a dying man (who may or may not be actually dead already) being guided to the afterlife speak to these same concerns of being and nothingness, and of Man’s place in the spiritual and mystical realms. Dead Man has little time for inquiries into political or social commentary as it sets its goals on a higher level of exploration of the human condition. It was certainly a bit of an adjustment from what I had been expecting of the film at first.
Of course, after consuming much, if not all, of Jarmusch’s oeuvre, these lofty thematic concerns don’t surprise me at all. His films often strike a balance between a perfect Zen koan and a late night, pot-fueled, dorm room philosophy session. They often provide deep truths about the human experience, but their presentation is a bit hazy and nebulous around the edges. From top to bottom, Dead Man makes for a great cult film. Like most of Jarmusch’s output, the film is just a little bit too strange to fully connect with the mainstream, but it has fared pretty well critically, and it has a fan base among critics and audiences. Its literary allusions, including a running gag in which Nobody believes that Blake is the deceased Romantic poet William Blake, and its philosophical context will satisfy the intellectuals in the audience, while its hazy, mystical presentation and brief moments of gore will satisfy the midnight movie crowd. The film celebrates the history of the Western genre with its casting of Robert Mitchum (in what would be his final role) as Dickinson, while also turning the typical Western narrative on its head. Like many Westerns, Dead Man depicts a great journey, but the nature of this journey is spiritual rather than physical, and it’s being led by Nobody, a Native American rather than a White cowboy. These type of inversions are typical of a revisionist Western, but Jarmusch pushes the genre to its breaking point, by merging the Western journey with a picaresque, peopled by strange, obtuse characters. The intended effect is to keep the audience off balance, unsure of whether Blake is really having these experiences or whether he’s hallucinating them, or if his journey is through some purgatorial space. What appears, initially, to be a stylish modern take on a classic genre turns out instead to be using that classic genre as a landscape upon which to project a rumination on life, death, violence, and human nature.
These themes are primarily explored through the character of Nobody, played expertly by Gary Farmer, whose job it is to enlighten the dying Blake, whom Nobody often refers to as a “stupid fucking White man.” Nobody’s character walks between two worlds, having been captured by English settlers as a child and toured around museums as an attraction. In this way, Nobody has closely inspected and become educated by White culture, but as a result has been unable to fully assimilate into his own Native culture. Like Blake floating between life and death, Nobody, too, is pulled between two different types of existence. Farmer provides much of the film’s comic relief, though not in the typical Western style, with Native Americans and other marginalized characters serving as the butt of cruel jokes. Nobody is smarter and more cultured than Blake, and the film’s humor often stems from Nobody’s offhanded quips about Blake and White culture. Farmer, a member of the Cayuga Nation, brings authenticity and respect to his role, as does Jarmusch’s treatment of Native American culture in the film. The film employs several Native languages throughout, and it presents Native culture as more enlightened and sophisticated than the brutal, rapacious culture of the White characters. Though he’s capable of great violence, Nobody is full of joy and life, while Blake and the film’s other White characters are morose and associated with death. In fact, Blake becomes a sort of avenging angel over the course of the film. Though he is initially unable to shoot straight, Blake develops lethal potency during his journey with Nobody, who teaches him to let his pistol speak his poetry. Depp’s performance is worthy of praise, as well. He eschews the scenery chewing that will become his trademark later in his career, employing instead a laconic, trancelike performance style. It gives the sense that Blake is some sort of conduit, channeling the energies of the Universe as the mysteries of death are revealed to him in his spiritual journey.
The rest of the film’s cast is excellent, as well. As is typical of a Jarmusch film, big names pop up in small roles throughout the film. Though this really is Depp’s and Farmer’s movie, several of these cameos are worth mentioning as they simply add to the overall strangeness of the film. Lance Henrikson is a standout as Cole Wilson, the deadliest of three bounty hunters that Dickinson sends to bring Blake in for the murder of Charlie, who happens to be Dickinson’s son. His performance is built around his quiet menace and the rumors that the other bounty hunters whisper about his sadism and depravity. His riding partners, Conway Twill (Michael Wincott) and The Kid (Eugene Byrd), hatch a plot to kill Wilson and split the ransom among themselves, but Wilson is too crafty for them and in a memorable scene, proves the truth in the rumors of his cannibalism. Alfred Molina has a brief but memorable cameo as a bigoted frontier missionary. Blake and Nobody come upon his outpost late in the film and the missionary feigns piety when dealing with Blake, but treats Nobody with disdain and malice. Finally, Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton are fantastic as two thirds of a group of outlaws who plan to rape and kill Blake. Thornton is almost unrecognizable, covered head-to-toe in fur, but his distinctive drawl is hard to mistake, while Iggy Pop is very obviously himself, despite wearing a dress and a bonnet. Their brief scene is an interlude, and not particularly important to the film’s overall plot, but, like many of Blake’s encounters in Dead Man it deepens the sense of alienation and psychedelia that the film traffics in, and it enriches this offbeat world.
Dead Man is a film that exists wholly within its own space. While it certainly comments on and dialogues with the Western genre, it is not wholly of that genre. The film offers up little in the way of concrete narrative resolution, but instead leaves the audience with a profound sense of mood. The film’s visuals, its idiosyncratic performances, and its spare, improvised, Neil Young score, all enhance the strangeness of the film, and help to build this mood. Viewers looking for a traditional Western action film might be disappointed by Dead Man, although the film does have plenty of action, but anyone who wants to immerse themselves in a cinematic journey would be well advised to check out this somewhat lesser-known movie. It’s often said that a trip is less about the destination than about the journey, and Dead Man is a perfect example of this. While the film ends without much narrative clarity, its presentation of a moody, psychedelic trip is as enjoyable as it is inscrutable.
I missed a post last week for the first time during this project. My plan at the outset was to post once a week. The film that I had planned on writing on for my post on the 22nd of October was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, however when I opened up the case, the disc was missing. Rather than replacing the disc, as I had with Better Off Dead, or advancing my schedule by a week, I decided that my project would be better served by me taking a week off to catch my breath. I have a demanding and time consuming job, and I also devote a good portion of my free time to volunteering and community service, so I needed to take a brief break to get my writing back on schedule and to ensure that I could continue providing the quality of content that I have striven to maintain throughout the life of this blog. I hope to not miss any more posts going forward.