“Do what you will this life’s a fiction,
And is made up of contradiction.”
–William Blake, Gnomic Verses
DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch
PLOT: Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west to take a job as an accountant in the wild town of Machine, but when he arrives he discovers the position has been filled and he is stuck on the frontier with no money or prospects. Blake becomes a wanted man after he kills the son of the town tycoon in self defense. Wounded, he flees to the wilderness where he’s befriended by an Indian named Nobody, who believes he is the poet William Blake.
- William Blake, the namesake of Johnny Depp’s character in Dead Man, was a poet, painter and mystic who lived from 1757 to 1827. Best known for Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, he is considered one of the forerunners of English Romanticism.
- Jarmusch wrote the script with Depp and Farmer in mind for the leads.
- Elements of the finished script of Dead Man reportedly bear a striking similarity to “Zebulon,” an unpublished screenplay by novelist/screenwriter Rudy (Glen and Randa, Two-Lane Blacktop) Wurlitzer, which Jarmusch had read and discussed filming with the author. Wurlitzer later reworked the script into the novel The Drop Edge of Yonder.
- Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum coined the term “acid Western”—a category in which he also included The Shooting, Greaser’s Palace and El Topo—to describe Dead Man. Jarmusch himself called the film a “psychedelic Western.”
- Neil Young composed the harsh, starkly beautiful soundtrack by improvising on electric guitar while watching the final cut of the film. The Dead Man soundtrack (buy) includes seven solo guitar tracks from Young, plus film dialogue and clips of Depp reciting William Blake’s poetry.
- Farmer speaks three Native American languages in the film: Blackfoot, Cree, and Makah (which he learned to speak phonetically). None of the indigenous dialogue is subtitled.
- Jarmusch, who retains all the rights to his films, refused to make cuts to Dead Man requested by distributor Miramax; the director believed that the film was dumped on the market without sufficient promotion because of his reluctance to play along with the sudio.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nobody peering through William Blake’s skin to his bare skull during his peyote session? Iggy Pop in a prairie dress? Those are memorable moments, but in a movie inspired by poetry, it’s the scene of wounded William Blake, his face red with warpaint, curling up on the forest floor with a dead deer that’s the most poetically haunting.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dead Man is a lyrical and hypnotic film, with a subtle but potent and
Original trailer for Dead Man
lingering weirdness that the viewer must tease out. It’s possible to view the movie merely as a directionless, quirky indie Western; but that would be to miss out on the mystical, dreamlike tinge of this journey into death.
COMMENTS: Dead Man begins on a locomotive as a naif accountant is traveling from Cleveland to a the western town of Machine to begin a new life. We see him on the train playing solitaire or reading a booklet on beekeeping. He looks up to survey his fellow passengers, who meet his glance with indifference. The train’s whistle blows as the scene fades to black, accompanied by twanging chords from Neil Young’s guitar (sounding like abstract, electrified snippets stolen from a Morricone score). The scene repeats and fades back in again and again, each time with the traveler glancing around the compartment to find his companions slowly changing: their dress becomes more rustic, their hair more unkempt; females become rare, firearms common; the indifference in the passengers eyes changes into quiet hostility.
Dead Man is the story of an innocent who becomes a refugee after being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a standard story, but the way Jarmusch tells it is strange indeed. This opening scene sets the rhythm for the movie: a series of slow pulses punctuated by fadeouts and anguished bursts from Young’s guitar, the setting slowly shifting from the civilized to the wild. With the continual fading out and fading back, it’s as if the movie itself is drifting in and out of consciousness; an appropriate motif, considering the protagonist is fatally wounded early on. The tale is a series of journeys: the journey to the wild west from the civilized east, Blake’s flight into the wilderness, his wanderings with his Indian companion Nobody in the forests of the Pacific northwest as he is hunted by bounty hunters, and his final canoe journey into the ocean. It’s also the journey of a man from innocence to experience and, more importantly, from life to death—or perhaps from death to afterlife.
Dead Man begs an allegorical reading, as powerfully as it resists one. Jarmusch sets up an obvious dichotomy between civilization and white men (generally bad) and nature and Indians (generally good) inside the mythic structure of a hero’s journey. The English poet and painter William Blake, who came out of the most “civilized” nation in the world but whose sensibility of mystical simplicity made him an outsider among his own people, is a bridge between the two worlds. The character William Blake, the accountant, whom Nobody insists is the dead poet, flees from white man’s civilization into the wild. With the aid of Nobody—himself is an outcast caught between the European and the native worlds—Blake is eventually accepted into the Indian culture, as he breaks with his own people by becoming “a killer of white men.” Ultimately, his destiny is to travel even farther west, father from civilization, all the way into the bosom of the Pacific.
That journey from corrupting complexity into peaceful simplicity is the basic structure of Blake’s voyage, and it obviously suggests a spiritual journey. The title suggests that the trip is a postmortem one. Although there is no reason to doubt the literal story—that Blake comes to Machine, is shot, meets Nobody as he is fleeing white man’s justice, then eventually dies from his wounds—it’s possible, and thematically reasonable, to consider the idea that Blake actually is dead through much of the movie. It’s easy to suspect that Blake dies the first time he is shot: Nobody, who accepts the impossible as obvious, suggests as much with his chilling words when he first meets Blake: “did you kill the white man who killed you?” It’s even possible to see Blake as a dead man from the first minute he steps foot on the train. The locomotive fireman with his coal-blackened face and prophetic pronouncements suggests that the accountant is traveling to is Hell. Although specific spiritual lessons are difficult to divine from the tale, Blake’s entire journey from Machine to the ocean could be seen as the voyage of a dead soul from the gates of Hell through Purgatory to Paradise.
The mainstream film fanatic will find those vague, mystical speculations of less interest than Dead Man‘s once-in-a-lifetime, multi-generational cast. The film is headlined by Johnny Depp in that thrilling post-heartthrob period where he was taking every risky and offbeat role that came his way—and nailing them all. Character actor Gary Farmer lands the role of a lifetime as crusty medicine man Nobody; crusty character actor Lance Henriksen, who always seemed like he was born to play a heavy in a Western, gets his chance here. Dependable Michael Wincott provides welcome comic relief. Quirky Crispin Glover adds another weirdo to his repertoire with his illiterate, portentous railroad employee, who may be the brakeman on Charon’s locomotive. Cadaverous non-actor Iggy Pop adds a touch of novelty as a frontiersman in drag. Rising stars Gabriel Byrne (as a forlorn lover) and Billy Bob Thornton (a year before Sling Blade) contribute small but memorable parts. The great John Hurt leaves us wanting more in his near cameo role as middle-management at the Machine concern. All of this remarkable assembly contributes something without anyone hogging the spotlight, but most of the publicity centered around septuagenarian superstar Robert Mitchum, who commanded the two scenes he appeared in as a frontier tycoon. Delivering iconic genre lines like “the only job you’re goin’ to get is pushing up daisies from a pine box!,” a role as a villainous patriarch in a Western seems like the perfect capper to Mitchum’s storied career. It wasn’t quite his final role, but it should have been.
Due to the crowd of interesting thespians, it would be tempting to consider Dead Man as an actor’s movie, but Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic direction overwhelms everything. As usual with this director, the technical qualities of the film are superlative. The high contrast black and white cinematography (courtesy of Robby Müller) captures the grime and decay of the city as well as the luminous beauty of a white birch forest, and Young’s guitar score is as spare and forlorn as the Pacific wilderness. Jarmusch’s method of fading in and out of scenes adds a dreamlike feel, and his deliberate pacing suits the majestic material this time around, coming across as more solemn than slow. This Western features the most languid shootouts ever committed to film; characters calmly aim and reload their guns without fanfare, or stand by fatalistically waiting to be gunned down. Although the lack of music cues, closeups and other methods of dramatically highlighting violence make for a realistic depiction of combat, the casualness of the technique is so unexpected in a genre picture that it creates an unreal aura. And, as expected, Jarmusch fills his canvas with some of the quirkiest, strangest characters you’d ever hope to see in an oater, including not only a trio of blackly comic foresters and the poetry-spouting Nobody, but also a loquacious bounty hunter who carries a teddy bear, and another who’s the worst kind of cannibal.
On it’s release, Dead Man received mostly negative reviews. It was criticized as too slow and too pretentious, appearing to be thoughtful but actually delivering no ideas worth mentioning. Time has been kind to the movie, however, which has emerged as Jarmusch’s best work to date. In Dead Man, a measured journey into an odd, somber, dark and funny wilderness of the spirit, Jarmusch created a myth with staying power. Filled with poetic images like Johnny Depp reclining with a slaughtered fawn, Dead Man has proven a mysterious power to linger in the memory. It may never yield up its meaning, but that doesn’t make it empty.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…begins with a display of grotesquerie that is so sensational it sets up expectations that the movie might be the surreal last word on the Hollywood western and its mythic legacy. Those expectations, unfortunately, are not fulfilled. The film’s energy begins to flag after less than an hour, and as its pulse slackens it turns into a quirky allegory, punctuated with brilliant visionary flashes that partially redeem a philosophic ham-handedness.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
Dead Man – An archived version of Miramax’s original 1995 Dead Man page, with stills, sound clips, and links (many no longer active) to information on the American West and William Blake
IMDB LINK: Dead Man (1995)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Dead Man at “New York Trash” – A small but dense archive of Dead Man material, including cast bios, a short but very informative interview with Jarmusch, and movie and soundtrack clips
A Gun Up Your Ass: An Interview with Jim Jarmsuch – Dead Man champion Jonathan Rosenbaum’s detailed interview with Jarmusch for Cineaste magazine, conducted when the film was first released
The New Cult Canon: Dead Man – Scott Tobias initiates Dead Man into the A.V. Onion Club’s cult canon with a perceptive essay and two film clips
Critic’s Picks: ‘Dead Man’ – Video Library – The New York Times – Film critic A.O. Scott reassesses the “hallucinatory” Dead Man, calling it one of the best movies of the 1990s, in this three minute video review (Times critic Stephen Holden originally panned the film)
Blake & ‘Dead Man’ – A discussion of the film from a blog exploring the work of William Blake. Very insightful; it cites an earlier version of this review.
Dead Man – Johnathan Rosenbaum’s book length treatment of the film for the British Film Institute’s “Modern Classics” series, including a chapter on the “acid Western.”
DVD INFO: Miramax’s 2000 release (buy) offers up extras including cast and crew bios, a soundtrack-based music video from Neil Young, the theatrical trailer, and 16 minutes of unused footage. On April 12, 2011, Echo Bridge Home Entertainment released a bargain, bare-bones Dead Man DVD (buy) with no extras; the two cases look almost identical (confusingly, it’s the Echo Bridge release that features the Mirimax name on the cover), so customers should be careful to make sure they are getting the version they want. In the summer of 2011 Echo Bridge followed up the bargain DVD release with a bargain Blu-ray release (buy) which includes the special features from the original Miramax release. Considering that the Blu-ray costs only a couple more dollars than the DVD, it’s definitely the way to go if you have a player.
(This movie was nominated for review by “spalding,” who said “I always thought the film Dead man was a little strange and dark. the soundtrack was great, it was shot in black and white, and it had some odd moments.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)