“Do what you will this life’s a fiction,
And is made up of contradiction.”
–William Blake, Gnomic Verses
DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch
FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avatal, Gabriel Byrne
PLOT: Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west to take a job 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- Elements of the finished script of Dead Man reportedly bear a striking similarity to “Zebulon,” an unpublished screenplay by novelist/screenwriter Rudy (Glen and Randa, Two-Lane Blacktop) Wurlitzer, which Jarmusch had read and discussed filming with the author.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 studio.
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 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.
Original trailer for Dead Man
COMMENTS: Dead Man begins on a locomotive as a naif accountant is traveling from Continue reading 86. DEAD MAN (1995)