Dead Man (1995)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Strange Paradise: The Cinema of Jim Jarmusch. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
The postmodern Western films of the 1960s and 1970s eschewed the American myth of classic Westerns, instead focusing on tough examinations of the culture’s predilection for war, violence and oppression. The vocabulary of the classic Western film was often retained, however, but rather than being used to uphold American ideology, revisionist Westerns questioned these ideals, sometimes as sociopolitical statement, sometimes as parody.
Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), while on the surface resembling a postmodern Western, rejects both classic and revisionist Westerns as untenable and based on literary and narrative devices that have no place in modern cinema. Rather than indulging in a portrayal of heroes, as classic Westerns do, or the cool anti-heroes that populated revisionist cinema, Jarmusch focuses not on the white men but on Native American cultures, carefully portrayed with an eye toward historical accuracy. If there is any order to be had in the world of Dead Man, it’s within these dwindling Native cultures, while the whites of the American West in the 1880s dwell in a world of chaos and immorality.
Dead Man (1995), while on the surface resembling a postmodern Western, rejects both classic and revisionist Westerns as untenable and based on literary and narrative devices that have no place in modern cinema.
William Blake (Johnny Depp), the titular dead man, is at the center of this chaos, but neither willingly nor knowingly. Traveling in his sharp plaid suit and with the promise of a job in hand, Blake takes a train from Cleveland to a little nowhere town at the other end of the country. As he dozes along his journey, the film fades out as his own consciousness fades, only to fade back in to a new group of passengers. Each time he awakens he is further west, and the further west he goes, the fewer signs of civilization he sees. The women and children slowly disappear, families replaced by guns and scraggy men wearing coats made out of the animals they have killed.
The landscape changes with the people, too, becoming less hospitable, but also more recognizable to the audience. Blake’s train passes through iconic Western movie locations such as the Rocky Mountains and Monument Valley, dilapidated wagons and Native tents left behind like abandoned movie sets. With his shade slightly pulled down, Blake’s window frame creates a change in aspect ratio that separates the landscapes that the train passes by from the rest of the film. Dead Man wants you to remember all those familiar settings, the comfortable American myths and patriotic fantasies constructed within, and wants you to know that it is a movie that will not allow you such comforts. There’s nothing left for us in that cinematic past, Dead Man tells us, and it’s time for us to be taken, just like poor, timid William Blake, to the nasty, muddy end of the line: Machine.
It’s in the industrial town of Machine that Blake’s luck, if he ever had any to begin with, runs out: hours after he arrives, two people are dead, one by his own hand, and Blake is wounded and on the run. Collapsing in the woods outside of town, a Native man who calls himself Nobody (Gary Farmer) finds Blake and attempts to dislodge the bullet from “the stupid fucking white man’s” chest. Unable to, he declares Blake is as good as dead — this is not a wound he will recover from.
Jarmusch’s films frequently feature an America as seen through the eyes of people from other countries, but here, we have two Americans — one indigenous, one a descendant of Europeans — who are essentially foreigners in their own land. While Nobody is a stranger in his home country due to racism and industrialism and the spectre of manifest destiny, Blake’s outsider status is wholly earned thanks to his placid ignorance. Nobody recognizes this in Blake, but also believes he sees more to the man’s disconnect from society: that he’s the English poet William Blake, long since passed away, who has somehow returned to earth and must be guided back to the spirit world.
There is an inherent optimism within the act of destruction itself, however, and underneath the chilly surface of Dead Man is the knowledge that to destroy something is to set it free.
Nobody’s name seems at first an easy reference to Sergio Leone’s My Name is Nobody (1973) , but as Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his book Dead Man, Jarmusch confirmed that Nobody’s name is actually a reference to Conway Twitty. There are multiple songs he could be referring to here, but perhaps the most interesting is the line “my name nobody knows” from “Bad Seed My Daddy Sowed,” a song that that at once sentimentalizes patriarchal privilege while also condemning it. Much the same can be seen in the character of Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), a violent man who, thanks to the power capitalism has bestowed upon him, has the privilege of shooting whomever he wants, ruining lives, destroying the environment, and choosing to care more about his stolen horse than his dead son.
This theme of the breakdown of the traditional family runs throughout Dead Man, with two sets of men forming distorted family units. The first of these ersatz families are the killers hired by Dickinson to find his son’s murderer, while the second “family” is comprised of trappers that Nobody and Blake stumble upon. In both groups, curiously, the male-mother figures are buffoons. The assassin Twill (Michael Wincott) can’t stop chattering on about nothing, while “Sally” Jenko (Iggy Pop, in drag) repeatedly airs complaints about no one appreciating his cooking and cleaning. This seems less like a deliberate sociocultural statement on Jarmusch’s part than unintended philosophical inconsistency; one is reminded of the problems with the Lee Clayton character in The Missouri Breaks (1976), for instance, or of Duel at Diablo (1966), which goes to great pains to present a pro-Native, racially diverse cast, yet still co-stars a Jewish actor in brownface playing a Native chief.
Dubbed an “acid Western” by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dead Man combines respect and historical accuracy toward Native cultures with a harsh look at westward expansion in the 1800s, and wraps it all up in a hallucinatory aesthetic. Neil Young’s discordant electric guitar punctuates the unsteady emotions of Dead Man, while the slow fades in and out, which began in the very first scenes as Blake dozes on the train, add to the dream-like state. It’s a dream that harkens back to the very beginnings of the Western genre in its finale, a slow, awkward ballet of a shoot-out with one victim dying in a hands-up pirouette straight out of 1903’s The Great Train Robbery.
A vast departure from Jarmusch’s previous works, Dead Man confounded critics on its release. His usual reassuring take on life seemed to have disappeared under a crushing nihilism, his optimistic Americana replaced with the contention that the America of today, the result of the expansionism of white European settlers, is unsustainable, in part because it is so inseparable from the myths of the Western genre. There is an inherent optimism within the act of destruction itself, however, and underneath the chilly surface of Dead Man is the knowledge that to destroy something is to set it free.
A vast departure from Jarmusch's previous works, Dead Man confounded critics on its release. His usual reassuring take on life seemed to have disappeared under a crushing nihilism, his optimistic Americana replaced with the contention that the America of today, the result of the expansionism of white European settlers, is unsustainable, in part because it is so inseparable from the myths of the Western genre.