There is something romantic about a film genre set in unexplored territory in a bygone period, places untouched by Western civilization, where right and wrong are settled by the spin of a gun barrel, a shot of cheap whisky for courage, or a suicidal final stand. Whether it’s John Wayne and his stable of rugged, no-nonsense individuals or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name loner, men who live by personal codes make for irresistible film heroes. The classical cinematic heroes of the American West are legendary, possessing moral character movie audiences expected at the time, but by the mid-1960s, these cowboys were considered out-of-step with youth culture, changing social mores, and the upending conflicts of that decade. As New Hollywood filmmakers revitalized the film industry in the ’70s with exciting new interpretations of well-worn genres, the Western was re-examined, whether by auteurs like Robert Altman and Michael Cimino (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Heaven’s Gate), actor-turned-director Peter Fonda (The Hired Hand), or film veterans like Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Outlaw Josey Wales). Right and wrong, good and bad were no longer absolute, and the plight of Indigenous people began to be addressed in Westerns: no longer dehumanized “villains,” but victims of European colonization and North American expansion. Despite these revisions, Westerns all but disappeared in the ’80s, until Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992 ensured the genre wouldn’t fade into obscurity. Indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch took advantage of a bigger budget (a whopping $9M) to create his own Western, one that transcends genre. Dead Man (1995) is an existential exploration of a timid accountant who becomes a legend by happenstance, transformed into a wanted gunslinger. As Jimmy Stewart’s lawyer-turned-politician Ransom Stoddard says in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In Dead Man, it’s the journey to become a legend that’s more important than gun showdowns and saloon carousing.
Accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) arrives in the frontier town of Machine, as he was promised a job by the cantankerous metalworks owner, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum). As he is a month late, he is chased out of Dickinson’s office at gunpoint. Jobless in a cruel town, he befriends a local artist Thel (Mili Avital), who creates paper roses, and ends up in bed with her, interrupted by her ex-boyfriend, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne). Charlie shoots and kills Thel, but the bullet passes through her and into William’s chest; William takes Thel’s gun and shoots Charlie dead before escaping out the window and stealing Charlie’s horse. He passes out, waking up to find an Indigenous man, Nobody (Gary Farmer), tending to his chest wound, which will inevitably pierce his heart, making him a “dead man.” William and Nobody travel together, encountering various bounty hunters and lawmen who seek the bounty placed by Dickinson—Charlie was one of his sons! As they continue to travel West towards the coast, William makes peace with his mortality and readies himself for the journey beyond….
Dead Man is a tone poem, a mid-90s indie Western built on the foundation of a litany of William Blake references. As a former English major, I consulted several volumes of William Blake poetry in my personal library (hello, Songs of Innocence and Experience!), as he was one of the Romantic poets whom I turned to during my literature studies (less from course syllabi and more from extra-curricular reading of Aldous Huxley, Alan Ginsberg, and Jim Morrison—all cited frequently Blake’s influence on their work, from The Doors of Perception and “Howl” to the band, The Doors). Thankfully, this isn’t an English paper, so you, gentle reader, are relieved of a twenty-page explication of Blake and symbolism in Dead Man (I’m sure there are many print and online articles that delve into Blake goodness). Dead Man has the requisite glacial pacing one expects from a Jarmusch film, mesmerizing to some, bewildering to others, and mind-bending to those expanding their, ah, perceptions by way of, say, legal cannabis. Jarmusch is an acquired cinematic taste (he has his share of detractors, so he’s chilling in the same filmmaker’s lounge with Hal Hartley, Wes Anderson, and John Waters) and Dead Man is no exception—it can be a rewarding or frustrating viewing experience depending on one’s temperament. On its theatrical release, film critics were divided, many praising its laconic style and eccentric Neil Young electric-guitar score, others complaining that Jarmusch and Depp had nothing to say, especially in black and white, in a hollow narrative. I’m sure many of those detractors have come around in the twenty-five years since its release, as it was deemed worthy of addition to the Criterion Collection in 2018.
As a poet and visual artist of the Romantic age, Blake was obsessed with Judeo-Christian concepts of Heaven and Hell, good and evil, human sexuality, mortality, and experience as defining qualities of humanity. Many of his famous poems are referenced both directly and indirectly in Dead Man. There are numerous references, such as Thel, named from Blake’s poem “Book of Thel”: a young naïve woman, Thel, leaves the comforts of home to encounter the horrors of mortality and sexuality elsewhere in the world—her experience outside her home have changed her forever, naïve no more. Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose,” found in Songs of Experience, attributes sexuality and experience as destructive factors that define human mortality:
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
The poem has many interpretations, but in Dead Man, it’s referenced to demonstrate that William’s life has been altered by having sex with Thel. The “worm” of the poem is often interpreted as a demon introducing experience and thus mortality, that the beauty of the rose is fleeting; the “worm” of the film can be seen as Charlie, the “demon” who defines both Thel and William’s mortality with a fatal bullet. But one can also argue that the moment Thel and William decide to sleep together, they link themselves inextricably to death.
William Blake and the nature of experience-defining mortality continues in Dead Man when Nobody quotes from Blake’s poem, “The Auguries of Innocence.” “Every night and every morn, some to misery are born/Some are Born to sweet delight/Some are Born to Endless Night,” he recites, another example of how experience defines our existence. Good and bad experiences both, in part, define our existence. Some are mired in misery and pain, while others savor victory and rewards. Perhaps this is a simplistic way at looking at life, as there are circumstances beyond our control—where we are born, our socio-economic status, religion, race, etc.—but our experiences, good and bad, define our existence. Nobody quotes Blake after he’s unsuccessful in removing the bullet from William’s chest, acknowledging that William is on a finite path. Whether it’s fair or unfair, William’s experiences in the town of Machine have led him to his demise; his journey on the ocean at the end of the film is not unlike crossing the river Styx, the boundary from our mortal plane to Hades, the underworld.
Despite his misfortune, William embraces his namesake and his status as a “killer of white men.” His fatal wound and that namesake of a long-dead poet make him truly a “dead man”; he is damned and will continue as such until his inevitable conclusion. His brief conversation with the train engineer (the reliably-weird, soot-covered Crispin Glover) at the beginning of the film foreshadows his doom: the aptly-named Machine is not just a town that has brought white settlers’ “civilization” to untouched wilderness, polluting the air and land (the town itself looks unsightly, as William departs the train in a coughing fit, stepping in muck and watching horrified at a man receiving oral sex in the open), but the demise of those who travel to it. The town chews people up, leaving nothing but a trail of dead people. Through his encounters with every bounty hunter and gun-toting lawman, William transforms from the nebbish accountant in a “clown suit” into a calm killer who asks his victims if they’ve read his poetry. He’s accepted his fate, and his fatal wound is the instrument of his growth, looking at the world with a new perspective. In a post-Pirates of the Caribbean world, it’s easy to forget that Johnny Depp was once an in-demand indie actor, one who would attract the likes of Tim Burton and John Waters. As William, Depp sells the transformation convincingly, without overacting. His sedate performance is in step with his character’s metaphysical journey.
For me, Canadian Indigenous actor Gary Farmer as Nobody is the highlight of the film. He’s a complex character who isn’t “born to sweet delight.” Ostracized by his people, he is the product of two separate tribes, and welcome nowhere. It’s a sad but painful (and necessary) reminder that he represents the plight of Indigenous people, marginalized by an oppressive, dominant culture that has spread across their ancestral land. Nobody recites William Blake because he is the product of residential schooling, a shameful practice performed by both the American and Canadian governments in the 19th and 20th centuries to “civilize” Indigenous people, an attempt to erase their culture. In the horror of residential schooling, Nobody finds solace in Blake’s poetry, connecting to the powerful imagery and symbolism wherein. It’s Nobody who encounters William (whom he repeatedly refers to as “Stupid Fucking White Man”), and, in an act of compassion — despite all that’s been done to him by the white man — tends to William’s wound, delaying his death, but providing clarity on his journey into the unknown. He continues to encounter racism from white settlers, even when accompanied by William. Unlike many past Westerns, which inauthentically use token Indigenous spiritualism to drive narrative or employ crude, racist stereotypes, Dead Man depicts Nobody as a fully-fledged character whose experiences define his belief that death isn’t the end, but the next phase of experiences. It’s a refreshing perspective from a non-Indigenous filmmaker, and denotes a sensitivity lacking noticeably in the film genre.
As an unconventional Western, Dead Man employs several elements in order to illustrate its story. No stranger to monochromatic film, Jarmusch uses it to great advantage in order to bathe his tone poem in a dreamlike state. The black-and-white photography is a throwback to classic Westerns, but it also highlights William’s metaphysical journey: part fable and part symbolism. William is a wanted killer and Nobody is wanted by none, two outcasts brought together by circumstance (or fate) to send William off to where he “began” (as Nobody says, “Back to the place where all the spirits came from, and where all the spirits return. This world will no longer concern you.”). The black-and-white photography assures the viewer that William’s journey into death is peaceful and sedate, as he slips between the boundaries of existence. Neil Young’s electric-guitar score is also atypical of Westerns (though not absent completely, as Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid uses Bob Dylan songs as part of its soundtrack), but memorable. It’s truly a magnificent, sparse score, underlining melancholy and then contentment, illustrating William’s troubled physical and metaphysical journeys. The jangly guitar riffs and reverb help illustrate the film’s dreamlike quality and it’s both elegiac and joyful, which is the best summation of William’s narrative.
There’s so much more to glean from Dead Man. Even twenty-five years later, Jim Jarmusch’s film is a rejection of its genre’s shortcomings, seeking to correct the depiction of Indigenous people, subverting romantic notions of individualism by creating its own spiritual journey. The film uses an unlikely ally in William Blake’s poetry to highlight the complexities of human existence and our place in the universe. Many will shrug the film off as mid-90s navel-gazing, existential hokum, but I feel that Dead Man cements Jarmusch’s status as an auteur with much to say using brevity and stark imagery. He’s able to take an existing and beloved film genre and imbue it with his unique narrative voice, creating a magnificent–and memorable–viewing experience.