Westerns are certainly not my favorite genre of film. For the most part, I find them boring with some exceptions like the remake 3:10 to Yuma and Appaloosa. These two films are very different from Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, a strange, dreamlike Western that explores the themes of death and how we can prepare for it, and through that preparation find out who we really are and what we are capable of.
William Blake (Johnny Depp) is an accountant from Cleveland who is offered a job in the town of Machine, despite warnings from the fireman (Crispin Glover) on the train he is traveling on. Upon arrival, Blake discovers that the job is no longer available. No out of work and only a few cents to his name, William decides to drown his sorrows in alcohol and meets a former prostitute, Thel. (Mili Avital). When Thel’s fiance (and son to the man who promised Blake a job) walks in on William and Thel, a shootout occurs resulting in the death of Thel and her fiancé. Now, William is wounded and on the run until he is found by a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer). While William travels with Nobody, a group of killers (Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, and Eugene Byrd) are on their trail to bring Blake in dead or alive.
This isn’t a Western about good guys and bad guys, although the film does have its fair share of both. What really is at the core of this film is a philosophy on death and society. As the title states, William Blake is dying, making him the walking dead. This intense newfound version of mortality brings upon a strange change in William Blake’s character. He goes from being a push over accountant to a gunslinging man on the run who has found peace with himself. It made me think how I would handle myself in that situation. Would I be as accepting as William Blake?
There is a commentary, albeit a bizarre one, on society. Machine is a lawless city where bounty hunters are brought in to take care of the murderers and other criminals. Essentially, this is just killers chasing down other killers and getting paid for it. I don’t’ know if I would go so far as to say that Jarmusch is saying using this as a metaphor for police officers, but I wouldn’t discount that theory. The Native Americans portrayed also celebrate killing as something honorable. This served as a reminder that murder is purely a societal condemnation, and humans would kill each other in nature. I’m not saying that the Native Americans are portrayed as cold blooded killers; they merely have different views on the act of killing.
This movie is full of stars. Johnny Depp is really in charge of pushing the movie forward and it was cool to see him in one of his earlier roles. Gary Farmer was fantastic as Nobody and brought a lot of sympathy and understanding not only to his character, but to the Native American people. There’s so many other great roles in this with fine actors playing them. Dead Man features the likes of Crispin Glover, Gabriel Byrne, Lance Henriksen, John Hurt, Robert Mitchum (in his last role), Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, and Alfred Molina. This film is a performance powerhouse.
As a word of warning to casual film goers: Dead Man is very, very slow. There are times where I didn’t think the story could move any slower and then it did! This is the way to tell the story though. With the overlying theme of preparing for death by discovering your inner oneness with nature is a powerful message. This slow pace perfectly accentuates the arc that William Blake travels. The opening scene where Blake is on the train keeps cutting from the inside of the train, to the mechanics of the train, to the desert. This perfectly shows just how long this trip is taking and it sets up the feeling for the rest of the movie.
I also feel the need to mention the cinematography and soundtrack. Robert Müller creates a beautifully bleak atmosphere with his flowing camera work and black and white photography. Neil Young’s music also is a big contribution to the film, and is just as minimal as Jarmusch’s storytelling. These combined are all very important to the atmosphere of the film and immersing the viewer into its unsettling hold.
If you feel like you have the patience to sit through Dead Man and think about it long afterwards, as it is inevitable, then this is a phenomenal experience. I call it an experience because I never felt the pulse pounding entertainment that you would feel in a typical Western or thriller. This is a quiet storm that hits the viewer hard with its messages, scenery, and mood. I’d go so far as to call Dead Man a masterpiece.