BLOGGER'S NOTE: A slightly shorter version of this article appears at the Wonders in the Dark blog for their 50 Greatest Westerns Countdown.
Dead Man (1995) is the western that I always imagined David Lynch directing if he had any inclination towards the genre. It was, in fact, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch and marked a significant evolution for the filmmaker thematically while keeping consistent stylistically with the rest of his body of work. Where his previous films managed to avoid any clear categorization, Dead Man clearly resembles a western, however, it still adheres to the road film structure that is synonymous with Jarmusch’s other efforts. Dead Man also continued his preoccupation with outsiders in its depiction of the misadventures of William Blake (Johnny Depp), a meek accountant who travels to the decaying industrial town of Machine with the promise of employment. When he is subsequently rebuffed by his prospective employer, he finds himself on the run after a confrontation with a former prostitute (Mili Avital) and her jealous ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne). Blake ends up with a bullet lodged near his heart and meets a Native American called Nobody (Gary Farmer). Together they make not only a physical journey to the West Coast, but also a mystical, almost metaphysical one as well.
Jarmusch establishes a disquieting, almost Lynchian tone right from the get-go with sounds of machinery clanking and the steam hissing of the locomotive that takes Blake to Machine. It’s as if the director is suggesting that the Industrial Age is making its way out west, that it is as inevitable as Blake’s journey – a slow march to his own demise. The first (and only) person to speak with Blake on the train is its boilerman played by a coal-stained Crispin Glover who acts and speaks like he just came in from a David Lynch film to take a brief respite in Jarmusch’s. The man speaks rather cryptically, but is actually prophetically describing the last scene in the film. He rather ominously refers to Machine as “hell” and the “end of the line,” warning Blake that he might just die out there before many of the train car’s passengers suddenly fire their guns out the window at passing buffalo. This rather enigmatic prologue sets the mood for the rest of Dead Man and immerses us in a decidedly nihilistic world where life is brutal and short.
As Blake approaches Dickinson’s metal works factory, Jarmusch’s establishing shot is of an imposing structure, smoke billowing out of it. It’s certainly a nightmarish vision, which is reinforced by Blake’s journey through the town. There is a building whose façade is covered with animal skulls, their hides lying in piles out front. A horse urinates on the road and a prostitute is performing oral sex on a man (Gibby Haynes) who points a gun at Blake when he looks at him. Jarmusch presents much of the familiar iconography of the frontier town seen in countless westerns, but there is something not quite right about the place. Blake encounters outright hostility at every turn. The only person who shows Blake any bit of kindness is a former prostitute and she is soon accidentally killed by her ex-boyfriend.
Fortunately, this oppressive mood is punctuated by moments of levity, namely in the form of Robert Mitchum’s ridiculously macho John Dickinson, who talks to a big stuffed bear in his office instead of the three hired guns he’s brought in to find and catch Blake after he kills the factory owner’s son. Mitchum’s presence bridges the gap from classic Hollywood cinema, as the actor was active during that time, and the revisionist western in the way his character is portrayed. Dickinson is a sly parody of the traditional western tough guy, but the actor plays it straight in way that suggests Jarmusch is at once celebrating and critiquing the genre.
Dead Man opens up, both figuratively and literally, when Blake meets Nobody as he tries to dig out the bullet that is lodged near the accountant’s heart. Gary Farmer gives the film a rare, unfiltered portrayal of Native Americans. Not only does he rescue Blake, prolonging his life, but he is also the most intelligent, well-spoken character in the film. He quotes the poetry of William Blake (much to the so-called cultured accountant’s confusion) and is savvy enough to know that they are being followed by Dickinson’s hired guns. He’s about as far as one can get from the stereotypical savage usually portrayed in classic westerns, often by caucasions. In fact, Farmer is himself a Cayuga and also speaks in Cree and Blackfoot languages, which Jarmusch refuses to subtitle thereby having dialogue that only Native Americans will understand and appreciate. Nobody’s backstory, which explains not only his name, but where he developed his love of Blake’s poetry, is fascinating and tragic. Like Blake, Nobody is an outsider who doesn’t fit in anywhere.
In rather sharp contrast, all the white men in Dead Man are either ignorant or downright savage, bickering and fighting amongst themselves. Take the three men that Dickinson hires to find Blake. Johnny “The Kid” Pickett (Eugene Byrd) is a young bounty hunter out to gain a reputation for himself, Conway Twill (Michael Wincott), is a motormouth in love with the sound of his own voice, and Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), is a ruthless cannibal. In some respects, they echo the three hapless escape convicts from Down by Law (1986) as sources of humor. They are almost upstaged, or at least out-weirded, by another trio of rather eccentric fur traders played by Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton and Jared Harris and who may have been out in the wilderness a little too long. These three characters are grotesque parodies that come dangerously close to breaking the hypnotic spell Jarmusch worked so hard to achieve up to that point, but he maintains the tricky balancing act and this scene actually rescues Dead Man from becoming too overloaded with the pretention of its overtly arthouse look.
Jarmusch had been carrying around a lot of notes for what would become Dead Man for years and had even collaborated with screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop) on a cowboy epic called Ghost Dog. For research on Dead Man, he had been reading about American Indians and while taking a break, started re-reading Willam Blake’s poetry. Jarmusch was struck by how similar Blake’s stuff was with what he had been reading about native tribes. He decided to incorporate Blake into his film. As often happens when writing a script for his films, Jarmusch wrote the two main characters with two specific actors in mind: Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer. Jarmusch had known Depp for some time, having met him while shooting Night On Earth (1992) with the actor’s then-girlfriend, Winona Ryder. They had remained friends over the years and Jarmusch felt that the character of William Blake was ideally suited for Depp’s talents.
Jarmusch had seen Farmer in a Canadian film called Powwow Highway (1989) and really liked what the actor had done with his role in that movie. And so, with that performance in mind, Jarmusch wrote the character of Nobody for Farmer. Nobody avoids the usual pitfalls that befall most Native American characters. This was very important for Jarmusch who wanted to get away from the Hollywood stereotype: “I wanted to make an Indian character who wasn’t either A) the savage that must be eliminated, the force of nature that’s blocking the way for industrial progress, or B) the noble innocent that knows all and is another cliché. I wanted him to be a complicated human being.” Fortunately, Farmer brings to his role a mix of anger, humor and wonder that makes Nobody one of the most fascinating characters in Dead Man.
On the technical side of things, Jarmusch scored a real coup by not only reuniting with cinematographer Robby Muller, but he also convinced musician Neil Young to compose and perform the film’s soundtrack. Young’s eerie, minimalist score perfectly complements Muller’s atmospheric black and white photography to create a grungy, dirty world that looks like someone actually went back in time and shot the entire film in the 19th century. Jarmusch met Young backstage at a concert in Arizona during a day off from filming. To record the score, the musician set up everything in a big warehouse with monitors and equipment running to a remote truck. Jarmusch remembers that Young, “recorded it direct to the picture, straight through the film like old-school accompaniment to a silent picture. He did that three times in two days. He wouldn't allow anyone to stop the recording session or the picture. That's very odd. It was Neil's idea, and it's a very Neil Young kind of approach.”
Dead Man premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995 to a warm reaction from the European media and a predictably mixed reaction from the American press. In an effort to reach a broader audience, Jarmusch signed a deal with Miramax to distribute his film. However, the filmmaker clashed with the studio's headstrong owner, Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to change some of the content of the film to make it more marketable. Jarmusch said in an interview, “I did not expect Dead Man to be a commercial success. But I wanted it handled in a classy way. And it was handled, as one critic put it, with tongs by Miramax ... he bought a finished film; and then wanted me to change it. This was insulting to me and, ultimately, I felt punished – because I didn't do what he wanted, he didn't distribute the film in a classy way.”
Dead Man received mostly negative to mixed reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave it one-and-a-half out of four stars and famously wrote, “Jim Jarmusch is trying to get at something here, and I don’t have a clue what it is. Are the machines of the East going to destroy the nature of the West? Is the white man doomed, and is the Indian his spiritual guide to the farther shore? Should you avoid any town that can’t use another accountant?” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “When Dead Man is imagining the Wild West as an infernal landscape of death, it is furiously alive. When it tries to reflect on those images, it begins to nod out.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Yet the film’s meandering quirkiness is, finally, a big bore, the desperate ploy of a filmmaker who is threatening to vanish down the rabbit hole of his avant-chic attitudes.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “His [Jarmusch] revisionist message, while gussied up in flip metaphysical finery, is essentially that of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven: The frontier was a hellhole.” However, on Salon.com, Greil Marcus called Dead Man, “the best movie of the end of the 20th century,” while also praising Neil Young’s soundtrack.
With Dead Man, Jarmusch filters the western through a decidedly idiosyncractic approach that includes deliberate, off-kilter pacing, an experimental soundtrack scored by Neil Young, and several characters playfully named after figures in 20th century American culture that provoked film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to dub it an “Acid Western” in his review for the Chicago Reader. As he points out, the film subverted several conventions of classic westerns to “conjure up a crazed version of autodestructive white America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins.” Early on in the film, Blake has bedded down with a former prostitute and afterwards he finds her gun underneath a pillow. He asks her rather naïvely, "Why do you have this?" to which she replies, "Because this is America." This pretty much sums up one of Dead Man's central themes – America was born out of violence and continues to be that way, as if, despite all the modern innovations and conveniences, it continues on in the same wild, untamed spirit of the frontier west.
Chiose, Simona. “Dead Man Talking.” The Globe and Mail, May 23, 1996.
McKenna, Kristine. “Dead Man Talking.” Los Angeles Times. May 5, 1996.
Pulver, Andrew. "Indie Reservation." The Guardian. March 31, 2000.
Rea, Steven. “How William Blake Got Himself into a Picture.” Philadelphia Inquirer. May 12, 1996.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Acid Western.” Chicago Reader. June 26, 1996.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “A Gun Up Your Ass: An Interview with Jim Jarmusch.” Cineaste, vol. XXII, no. 2, 1996.