Review: Dead Man (1995)

Johnny Depp as William Blake in Dead Man (1995)

Stark says: Don’t let the sun burn a hole in your ass, William Blake.

Dead Man is Jim Jarmusch’s contribution to the Acid Western genre; something I’ve been known to fix my beady eye on. The Acid Western was a product of the sixties; by and large, it takes the best of the Spaghetti Westerns – the vistas, the journeys, the lone individual and the uneasy alliances – and mashes them up with existentialism, surrealism and, in the case of Dead Man, black comedy. Imagine if Leone made All the Pretty Horses in the style of Blazing Saddles, and you’d be… not close at all, but oh well. 

Dead Man is an odd beast. It’s black and white and brooding, but not above caricature or a bit of physical comedy. As a Western, it’s strangely authentic as well as being wholly non-traditional. It combines a philosophical and complex subtext with… cannibalistic bounty hunters. Roger Ebert didn’t like it but I bet Roger Ebert couldn’t hog-tie a man in less than a minute, using nothing but a dead snake. So.

The good

From the beginning of Dead Man, the Frontier looms large. Depp, back in the days when he could actually act, plays naïve, mind-mannered accountant William Blake (yes, I know, that Blake – stay tuned) who travels from Cleveland to take up a new job out west in the town of Machine: the end of the line. The further he travels from civilisation, the wilder the train’s passengers become, until finally it’s just him and a load of fur clad varmints, shooting buffalo from the train windows… Just the first of many hard-eyed looks at the destruction of the Native American way of life wrought by westward expansion.

The town of Machine is a caricature of itself, and even looks like a stage set in places. It’s deliberately artificial, overblown, as are the characters we encounter. Crispin Glover is a weirdly fey train fireman, asking Blake why he’s come “to hell”. John Hurt appears as an odious, lank-haired foreman and Robert Mitchum crops up, in his last film role, as the stuffed-bear loving, shotgun-wielding factory boss Mr Dickinson.

Right from the start, the film’s tone shifts constantly between comical, brooding and poignant, even as Blake is laughed out of the factory and left, penniless and jobless in the miserable town. The only spark of happiness is when he meets Thel, a former prostitute and paper flower seller. 

 ‘Why do you have this?’ he asks her later, finding a gun beneath her pillow.

 ‘Because this is America,’ she says.

She’s right. For all Dead Man’s rumination, this is the America of the classic Western, and soon Blake is caught up in a shoot-out, wounded and forced to go on the run, accused of a crime he didn’t commit. As with all good Westerns, here starts a transition. In Blake’s case, we see mouse-like apprehension morph into bewildered resignation before settling into a kind of savage stillness, when he accepts the role of the outlaw he is accused of being.

Along the way he meets Nobody, or Exaybachay: “He who talks loud, saying nothing” played by the inimitable Gary Farmer, who entirely steals this show.

Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer in Dead Man 1995

Nobody – who learned William Blake’s poetry as a captive in England – decides that Blake is an incarnation of the dead poet. He resolves to guide the dead-man-walking to the edge of the Pacific, and the edge of the physical world, in order to return him to the land of the spirits.

Blake and Nobody represent one of the film’s major themes: the loss of identity in a fragmented environment. When Blake arrives in Machine only to find there is already an accountant at the factory, he is effectively rendered useless, a man with no purpose. And Machine is a brutal place for those who don’t fit into the mechanism.

Similarly, Nobody has been cast out by his tribe, firstly for being of mixed parentage, and secondly because they think he’s a liar. He has been forced to become nobody, to “wander the earth alone”. In this way, both Nobody and Blake are as lost and awkward as each other. Their names are empty signifiers; there is no place for either of them in this world of two halves, of Machine or the wilderness. The only identity Blake can find in this harsh, divided landscape is as a “killer of white men”.

 “That weapon,’ Nobody tells him, ‘will replace your tongue. And your poetry will now be written with blood.’

As you might’ve guessed by now, William Blake’s poetry (the real one) resonates through the film, woven into the characters and events as well as the imagery.

Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight.
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night. 

But in case you thought all this was getting too serious, we’ll veer back to the film’s absurdist element. Look, there’s Iggy Pop playing a bonnet-wearing, bible-thumping, cannibalistic fur-trader called Sally. He’s joined in a mad trio by Billy Bob Thornton and Jared Harris (A.K.A Moriarty, a long way from Baker Street). Again, these are men whose identities have been gnawed on by the frontier. As Blake approaches, Sally is telling the story of Goldilocks, which makes these three are a sort of nightmarish Mummy, Daddy and Baby Bear. In-keeping with the theme of identity, they never ask Blake’s name, although they do ask who he’s travelling with, to which he replies, Odysseus-style: “Nobody”. 

The soundtrack plays its part in all of this too. Mostly improvised by a moody Neil Young, it twangs like a loosed bow-string, clunks like an axe on wood and thrums like thunder in the forest before melting into its solitary lead refrain; one worthy of a classic Western. Bowwwww… you’ll be humming for days, bow bow bow, bow bow bow bow.

The bad

A fly flew into my glass of whisky while I was re-watching this film. That was bad. I drank it anyway. Apart from that, I don’t have many criticisms. Occasionally Dead Man loses its balance, and plunges too far into the existentially abstract or the ridiculously overblown. The three cartoonish bounty hunters on Blake’s trail – including the memorable and, err, hungry Cole Wilson – are a case in point. And Jarmusch uses fade-to-black A LOT, making each scene a sort of vignette. The length between fades increases during the film, while decreasing again towards the end, probably representative of Blake’s rising and ebbing consciousness, but unless you’re tuned into this, you might find them pretty relentless.

The ugly

 Well, it’s a black and white existential surrealist tragi-comic Western, so Dead Man is bound to leave some people cold. Don’t let that word “surreal” put you off though; Buñuel or El Topo this ain’t. But, by the same token, if you’re looking for an all guns blazin’ romp of a Western, this isn’t it either.

Dead Man’s pace is less hell-for-leather and more a piece of hide, tanning slowly in the desert wind that scours the land and reminds us of the transitory nature of the flesh while Cormac McCarthy looks on thinking about horses. You should probably watch it alone, at night, with a glass of some strong spirit to help you drift along with its current.

You’ll either be mesmerized, or you won’t, but slap my rump and call me Bill if I lie, this is a film worth slowing down for.

This review was first featured on the long night of the soul that was the one and only Pornokitsch

One thought on “Review: Dead Man (1995)”

Comments are closed.