“You William Blake?”
“Yes, I am. Do you know my poetry?”
Meek, introverted accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) journeys West from Cleveland to the mysterious town of Machine where he’s been promised a job, only to find that the job is taken and that the company owner, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), is a gun-toting sociopath who listens to nobody. Blake is seduced by a beautiful young woman at bar (Mili Avital), and encounters a skirmish that is far over his head when his moment of solace is interrupted by the woman’s former fiancée (Gabriel Byrne). Blake kills the man in self-defense and leaves with a bullet in his shoulder and a price on his head. As Blake struggles through the woods of the West, he is encountered by a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer), who has been outcast from his tribe and possesses affection for a certain poet that our protagonist happens to share a name with. Nobody helps Blake on his journey to the infinite, and the meek accountant goes through an incredible transformation while being chased down by colorful characters inside and outside of the law.
Why We Love It
Dead Man is probably Jim Jarmusch’s most conventional film in terms of storytelling. But I don’t mean conventional in a contrived, unoriginal, or boring way. Rather, Dead Man is a fascinating and involving take on the Western. It’s a new kind of Western, and some (Jonathan Rosenbaum, for example) have referred to it as the canonical “postmodern Western.” Depp’s Blake is as far as one could come from a Gary Cooper or a John Wayne, but that’s exactly what makes Dead Man such a great movie. It begins as a story of a frail Western antihero and, through what is probably the longest on-screen death in cinema history, Depp manifests an incredible transformation in both his exterior and interior, signified by his movement from tightly buttoned plaid to native paint and fur. The accountant transforms from a solitary man of the office to a man of the earth – not a “Western hero” in the genre’s traditional sense, but rather a pre-Western hero, a uniquely white Native American who becomes one with nature and the roots of what came to be known as America before this splendor was decimated by towns like Machine. In a genre that has traditionally portrayed Native Americans as savages, it’s refreshing to see a film that focuses on Native American culture’s interaction with Western civilization in such an honest way.
However, even if one doesn’t take the film’s socio-historical discourse into account, it is also satisfying purely as a filmic experience. Dead Man is essentially a tone poem of the beautifully cool, accented by the haunting, brooding (and deliberately anachronistic) electric guitar score by Neil Young that structures the film’s slow-burn pace as realized by Robbie Muller’s harsh canvas of black-and-white cinematography. And, as typical of Jarmusch, Dead Man wouldn’t be what it is without its off-kilter ingredients, adding touches of bizarre humor into the mix, most evidently in the scene where Nobody forces Blake to confront a group of insane nomads played by Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jared Harris (how a British guy ended up in this group is beyond me). The deadpan look on Thornton’s face and his prolonged reaction after getting shot gets me every time, and this scene abruptly transitions to a violent shootout. These shifts in tone are not distracting or disorienting, but work in the film’s favor, always keeping the audience on their toes and leaving them wondering what will happen next.
Added to the calculated absurdity of the film is its incredible cast. Dead Man, like much of Jarmusch’s work, features a lot of famous people in small roles, and while in some of his films these roles feel disappointingly small and seem to add little besides the impression of a cameo, in Dead Man he permits the baggage of each of his actors to give weight to what needs to be achieved in a short time in each respective role. As a result, each character leaves an impression, each character-performer combination having been calibrated perfectly in their respective necessary function, from Crispin Glover’s bizarre and soot-smeared monologuing train operator to Byrne’s broken-hearted vengeance-seeker to Lance Henriksen’s psycho killer to John Hurt’s sardonic secretary to Alfred Molina’s two-faced missionary. All add flavor to the collage of introspective tone, bizarre humor, and sudden violence throughout the film, but none less than Robert Mitchum in his final screen role, and the former Western movie star’s antagonist and real-life death after the film accentuate how much Dead Man diverts in such an original and thorough way from the traditional Western.
The Moment We Fell in Love
I’d have to say that, for me, the greatest moment of the film is the one featuring the dialogue at the header of this article. Up to this point, Blake has been utterly confounded by Nobody’s confusion of him with the poet William Blake, for Depp’s Blake has shown literacy in accounting but not much else. Now, having left his suit and glasses behind and possessing the blood of an animal as face paint and an intimidating glare (but still retaining his top hat, thus giving him a schizophrenic middle ground between his Western, “civilized” past and his present communion with nature), Blake has now fully embodied that transformative alter ego Nobody has made him to be, punctuated by the fact that he can kill those who threaten him and protect himself without Nobody’s assistance. It’s a moment of both triumph and badassery that only Jarmusch and Depp can pull off: containing literary depth and social relevance while also giving us the necessary and engrossing transformation of the protagonist. It’s both engrossing and profound, not to mention a helluva line to deliver before a kill shot.
Dead Man is an incredible movie in several respects. First, it signals a point of transition and departure for the western genre, turning archetypical character roles on their respective heads and interrogating the social meaning of the Western. Secondly, it seamlessly integrates references to literature (Blake) and pop culture (Neil Young) in with its historical re-reading of Western Expansion with a subtext that comes across as subtle and meaningful rather than pretentious or didactic, allowing any line of dialogue between Blake and Nobody to contain a multitude of meanings. Lastly, and most importantly, it’s simply an involving and starkly original tale of a character’s transformation, and a an entertaining journey to behold all the while. It’s probably Jarmusch’s best, as well as one of Depp’s most underrated performances, and all these things together make it a movie we love.