Jim Jarusch's '80s filmography was enough to make me an ardent fan, but nothing prepared me for Dead Man. At once a film far beyond his low-key, minimalistic satires and the fulfillment of their possibilities, it applies his unique style to a genre aesthetically antithetical to it: the Western. The Western is a genre about bigness: big settings, big personas and, most of all, big guns. For Jarmusch to make one, even an alternative "acid" Western, seems on paper to be madness.
Instead, it takes the idea of the Acid Western to its extreme. Acid Westerns grew out of the counterculture of the '60s, as well as the genre's appropriation by other countries, specifically the Italians with their spaghetti Westerns. Both genres praised individual strength and personal morality: classic Westerns depicted the individualistic hero as a beacon of general Americana, a reflection of our can-do attitude and a literal representation of pioneering spirit, while the Westerns of the post-Vietnam era presented the individual as the true source of morality in the face of corrupt society, even if the counterculture ideals could not be fully applied as the heroes still resorted to mass displays of violence that only a few seemed to genuinely regret (and none of them half so much as the samurai in Yojimbo and Sanjuro, the basis for the Man With No Name and therefore countless other Western anti-heroes).
Dead Man, however, strips away all notions of nobility in the Old West. Everything that you need to know about the episodic film can be gleaned from its first vignette, a short film in its own right: William Blake (Johnny Depp), a broke accountant from Cleveland, scraped together just enough cash to head out to the frontier town of Machine where he's been guaranteed a job by metal works owner Mr. Dickinson. The roughly nine-minute sequence begins with Blake in a train car surrounding by passengers of his social status. They're all well-dressed, polite, headed out to the West for new and bold opportunities, ideal Western characters all. Jarmusch fades to some time later, and Blake looks up to see a few new passengers of the scruffier variety. This happens again, and suddenly Blake is sitting among disgusting rabble, scraggly beards and missing teeth. A coal-coated boilerman (Crispin Glover) approaches and warns him of heading out west to Machine ("to Hell," as he calls it). As the boilerman continues to caution Blake, the other passengers suddenly open the windows and fire at buffalo roaming the landscape beside the train. "Government reckons they [various passengers of this sort] killed about a million last year." In nine minutes, Jarmusch masterfully takes our idea of the cinematic Western and destroys it, presenting us instead with a group of ordinary people looking not to find prosperity through honest work out West but to taint and rape another part of the Earth after ruining someplace east beyond capacity.
The boilerman's warnings ring in Blake's head as he walks through the decadent town of Machine, and when he arrives at Dickinson's a callous secretary (John Hurt) says with ample derision that Blake's message was postmarked two months ago and the position has long since been filled. That night, a former prostitute takes pity on him when he helps her up in the street and takes him back to her place, only for her ex- (and Mr. Dickinson's son) Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) to pop in and shoot both Thel and Bill, killing her and lodging a bullet near William's heart.
If the film had not yet established its break from the genre to your satisfaction, here the film moves into marvelously, woefully uncharted territory. Blake is rescued by a Native American named Nobody, a man of mixed tribal descent and a European upbringing who tells Blake that he couldn't remove the bullet from his chest and that his days are numbered. Nobody refers to his new companion as "stupid fucking white man" until he at last asks for William's name, only to react with a start. "You're William Blake?" he asks incredulously, "Then you are a dead man!" Nobody is thinking of the poet William Blake, his literary hero and seemingly the one aspect of his Western education for which he is grateful. Suddenly enthused at what he believes to be the incarnation of the poet, Nobody decides to take Blake to the Pacific Coast so that he might return this vessel to the spirit-world, and along the way they will kill any white men who cross them. Jarmusch says that he used Blake's poetry in connection with the Native American history he studied for the film as he thought Blake's style and topics fit nicely with what he discovered about Native Americans and their perspectives, so perhaps he works through Nobody, realigning William Blake's legacy to the Indians by breaking violently from the Europeans.
That's not to say that Nobody is a well-cultured savage looking for revenge; on the contrary, Dead Man contains the fairest depiction of Native Americans I've ever seen in a Western. The materialistic, imperialist whites headed west for money and found harsh, unforgiving terrains. Even so, they subjugated the Indians there simply to claim the land as Manifest Destiny and stuck it out on principle. Perhaps the greatest example of this comes when Nobody sends Blake into a camp of mad fur traders led by "Sally," a cross-dressing, Bible-preaching trader played by Iggy Pop. It's the most bizarre thing I've ever seen in a Jarmusch film, yet it ultimately works brilliantly: the traders tread the line between absurdity and terror, a trio driven mad by the West's desolation that strike us initially as loopy until they reveal themselves as demented rapists.
Blake and Nobody's tripped-out journey shows how easily demons can be awakened in the face of the nothingness of the West. Nobody, witty and kind, is also a merciless killer in battle. Abducted as a child, Nobody was paraded around the United States before being placed on a ship and sent to England to be gawked at and, eventually, educated. Naturally a victim of white racism, his European adolescence alienated him from the Native Americans. That feeling of solitude is perhaps what drives him to push Blake into murder, but it does not explain why he would go out of his way to save the man's life without ever knowing him, nor his general amicability with others. The two men, cut off socially from their peers, must instead connect on genuine, personal grounds, and Blake simply finds that the Indians are more charitable and open than his own race.
Their bond is juxtposed with a trio of bounty hunters sent by Charlie's dad, the metal works owner Mr. Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, in his final role), to avenge his son and also, perhaps preferably, retrieve his pinto. The three -- an African-American boy, a loudmouthed fool, and a sadistic cannibal named Cole (Lance Henriksen) -- sleep with one eye open watching each other, but wariness doesn't save the other two from Cole, who tires of both, kills them and roasts them on a fire. Another major white figure is a racist missionary (Alfred Molina) who denies supplies to Nobody that he in turn offers to Blake, then attempts to kill Blake upon recognizing him.
True to his style, Jarmusch uses sparse dialogue in the film, but it speaks volumes, as much, if not more so, than even the most intricate Tarantino riff. As Nobody confuses Depp's Blake with the poet Blake, William Blake's work seeps into the movie, always working within the context of the film and often on several layers above it. When Nobody tells Blake they're being followed, William starts to formulate a plan, realizes he has nothing and immediately asks Nobody what to do. "The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow," Nobody responds sardonically. The line is a direct lift from Blake's poetry (far from the only one), but in that one moment we can read much into Nobody and his sense of irony: the eagle of course represents the United States, our proud vision of ourselves, while the crow, the meeker bird and, in the context of the quote, lesser and mediocre compared to the eagle, stands for Native Americans, possibly the Blackfoot that make up a part of Nobody's heritage (you could argue that it stands for the Crow Nation, but I think that's too literal and the Crow don't feature in the film and they were even enemies of the Blackfoot). Nobody's delivery of the line coldly mocks the white attitude toward the natives, and in a larger sense prevents the moment from becoming Hollywood "come together" tripe by pointing out how ludicrous it is for any white people to think this way instead of praising one white person for thinking progressively.
Blake's poetry isn't the only allusion to other works, however, and many of Jarmusch's references are slyly anachronistic. The names of several minor characters mirror 20th century musicians such as Lee Hazelwood or Benmont Tench. Nobody's real name, "He Who Talk Loud Say Nothing," is a reference to the James Brown classic "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing." In fact, I couldn't help but think of Homer's Odyssey in connection to Nobody: in the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus, Odysseus gives his name as "Nobody" so that when he attacks the beast, his screams of "Nobody is killing me!" turn potential helpers away. When Blake stumbles into Iggy Pop's (himself a 20th century musician) camp, he inadvertently lures the rapists into making the first move and sealing their fate by saying "I'm with Nobody."
Jarmusch said he was attracted to the idea of a Western because of its "inseparable connection to America"1, and Dead Man certainly presents us with a vision of America. However, his West demonstrates the fascism that a celebration of individualism, when married with a sense of the superiority of personal morals over societal norms, can create. Nobody gives Blake hallucinogens to send him on a "vision quest," and part of his alignment with nature results in the death of two U.S. Marshals. When Charlie attacked him in the bed, Blake took three shots to hit a man standing still not 20 feet away. Slowly though, the influence of his surroundings and the people already converted by them reveal how easy it is to take another person's life in the wilderness. Jarmusch's Western doesn't celebrate its connection to America, it unveils our propensity to violence.
Neil Young's scattered electric twang of a soundtrack sets the mood for the picture, gently warping the background in its quieter moments and swelling into grungy, distorted nightmares as Blake's spiritual quest awakens the beast within to send him back to this sinister nature. It's the perfect capper to one of the most unique and rewarding cinematic experiences of my life. I'm never quite sure what constitutes a revisionist Western -- many include the spaghetti Westerns, but for my money Leone and many of the others never drifted far enough away from conventional Western tropes to qualify, save the odd duck here and there -- but either way Dead Man easily slides into my #2 spot behind Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Both are films that dismantle the structure of the Western, bringing it all crashing to the ground, but where Altman did so with regret and mourning, Jarmusch tackles the situation with pent-up rage, a fearsome rejection of the lie Hollywood fed us for decades. I would not go so far as to call Dead Man realistic -- anyone who has seen it knows that it's too out-there for that tag -- but here is a film that seeks to peel away the artifice of the Old West to show us an unforgiving terrain that consumes all those foolish enough to try to conquer it.