Director Jim Jarmusch has given us many amazing films over the course of his career. His contributions to cinema have been paramount since the 1980s. Jarmusch’s most expensive film to date, and perhaps his most enigmatic, is the 1995 independent film Dead Man. Dead Man stars Johnny Depp, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, Iggy Pop, Gary Farmer, and Robert Mitchum, among others. In the film, Jarmusch illustrates the culture of the American West as if someone of foreign origins were seeing it for the first time. Dead Man depicts Western culture’s obsession with violence within its own world, and crosses over to Native American culture for balance and spirit, with our pseudo-hero William Blake subtly leading the way. In Dead Man, Jarmusch has given us one of the best films from the 90’s decade and a true cult classic for all time.
William Blake (Depp) is heading to the town of Machine to accept a job as a bookkeeper in the town’s metal factory. After learning the position has already been filled, Blake departs for the local tavern. There, he meets a former prostitute, Thel, whom now sells paper flowers. Blake walks Thel home and they spend the night together. Later that night, Thel’s ex-lover, Charlie, barges in on them. Heartbroken at the sight of the two, and by a few choice words from Thel, Charlie shoots at Blake. Thel is killed by the bullet meant for Blake when she throws herself in front of him, but Blake is hit as well, and the bullet lodges in his chest. Blake shoots Charlie and flees on horseback from the scene. Charlie’s father, Mr. Dickinson (played by Robert Mitchum in his last role before his death), hires three ruthless outlaws to hunt Blake down and kill him, then recruits local law enforcement and hunters to do the same.
After his night ride, Blake awakens flat on his back with an American Indian (Farmer) attempting to remove the bullet from his chest with a knife. The Indian goes by the name Nobody. Unable to remove the bullet from Blake’s chest, Nobody tells Blake he is a “dead man.” He believes Blake to be the reincarnation of the poet William Blake, something of a personal hero for Nobody. Blake and Nobody set out West, with Nobody seeking to return Blake to what he considers his proper place in the spirit world. Along the way, Blake learns of the racism Nobody has suffered in his past. After encountering WANTED posters for Blake everywhere they turn, Nobody leaves Blake alone to go on a vision quest. Blake soon learns the truth of one of the first things Nobody told him: “[Your] weapon will replace your tongue. You will learn to speak through it. And your poetry will now be written with blood.” A bloody, spiritual journey ensues.
Dead Man was budgeted for 9 million dollars but only took in 1 million. In addition to the negative response from the filmgoing public, most of the response from mainstream critics and reviewers was negative as well. The meaning of Jarmusch’s film seemed to escape them completely. However, the film was praised internationally. Jarmusch, who is Caucasian, was given credit for delivering an intensely accurate depiction of Native American culture. Many international critics hailed Dead Man as “a visionary masterpiece” in its successful creation of what Jarmusch describes a “psychedelic Western.”
The film itself is shot entirely in black-and-white and is filled with cultural allusions, from Nobody quoting actual lines from William Blake’s poetry to the way many minor characters are named after 20th century cultural figures. The soundtrack to the film is another beautiful element all its own. Rock and roll legend Neil Young sat alone in a recording studio and composed the entire soundtrack while watching a raw cut of the film, improvising with electric and acoustic guitars, a piano, and an organ. The result is hauntingly penetrating. The soundtrack also features excerpts of William Blake’s poetry, read by Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer, as well as some of their dialogue from the film.
Dead Man is avant-garde Western film at its finest. Depp’s portrayal of William Blake as a maddeningly compliant man who accepts these new folds of his reality as quickly as he throws away the old ones is marvelous to see. The intensity of Blake’s character is astounding, considering that he barely ever shows any emotion. The same can be said for Gary Farmer’s character. In spite of their differing backgrounds, Nobody has many similar traits to those of Blake. The relationship between the two is cultivated by Blake’s search for the answers that Nobody can give him, which comes to a memorable climax that integrates the Western landscape with Nobody’s heralded spirit world. This film takes Westerns to another level in an amazingly intense way, and is a must see for any fan of truly great cinema.