Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man follows the journey of a Cleveland accountant, William Blake (Johnny Depp) as he travels to the end of the rail road and America’s Western frontier in the late 1800s in search of work only to find his own death and spiritual awakening.
As a fan of Jarmusch’s earlier work Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991), I was up for whatever the director had to offer. The fact that Depp was staring in the movie made it a definite must-see for me when it was initially released in theatres.
Reaction to the movie when it was first release was divided; people either loved it or hated it. I definitely fell into the ‘love it’ category and still do love it nearly 20 years later. It has a languid, dream-like quality to it punctuated with brief moments of intense action and violence. I think that some people are also put off by Neil Young’s instrumental guitar score that can feel both alien and disconnected from the film at times, but for me worked to heighten the tension and underscore the surreal aspects of the landscape.
A naïve city dweller, Blake heads west from Cleveland on the rail road to an industrial town aptly named Machine at the end of the line with the promise of a job in an iron foundry run by John Dickson (Robert Mitchum). Blake arrives to find that the job he had been promised has already been filled and demands to speak with Dickson, only to be laughed out of the office. Nearly penniless, Blake buys some whiskey and sits down to contemplate his next move. He witnesses a flower girl named Thel (Mili Avital) roughed up by a drunk patron and comes to her aid. After walking her back to her room, the two exchange stories and end up in bed together. Discovered by Thel’s jealous ex-boyfriend Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) the encounter turns violent leaving both Thel and Charlie dead, and Blake mortally wounded with a bullet lodged near his heart. Fearing for his life Blake escapes with Thel’s revolver and Charlie’s horse. As fate would have it Charlie is the son of John Dickinson who brings his money and influence to bear, hiring ruthless bounty hunters as well as putting out a bounty for Blake’s capture or death for anyone who wants it.
On death’s doorstep from his gunshot wound, Blake is found by a Native American called Nobody who tries to cut out the “white man’s metal” from Blake’s wound while he sleeps. Nobody becomes Blake’s guide leading him through the wilderness on his journey. Played by Canadian born actor Gary Farmer, Nobody is worldlier than his “educated” friend having been at one time enslaved and shipped to Europe to show off as a “savage”. Nobody is familiar with the work of William Blake’s poet/artist namesake quoting his poetry throughout the movie even when Blake himself is oblivious, calling Nobody’s seemingly mystic ramblings “Indian malarkey”. As cryptic as Nobody’s wisdom is sometimes, it’s his direct bare dialogue that is comedic and often poignant. Nobody’s recurring refrain of “Stupid fucking white man” and constant question of “Got any tobacco?” serve to underscore the absurdity of many of the situations they find themselves in.
In his weakened state Blake’s journey becomes a foggy, disjointed, series of interactions with those chasing him and those people that he and Nobody encounter along the way. These encounters fluctuate between the absurd, such as the encounter with Sally (Iggy Pop) and her band of misfit trappers, and the heartbreaking such as a scene of a burned out Indian settlement along the river bank.
Depp goes into full on subdued mode in his role as Blake in the first half of the film, being a passive participant in his journey reacting to the alien circumstances and environment. It’s not until after Nobody has abandoned him on his quest does Blake wake up to his fate and become an active participant in his journey. Depp’s bewildered and confused expressions evaporate as Blake takes charge, confronting some of his hunters with a stone faced look of determination. With guns trained on him, they ask: “Are you William Blake?” He coolly responds “Do you know my Poetry?” before shooting them dead.
Despite the meandering path the characters and the story take through the American West, it feels as if its building to something with Nobody and Blake looking to get to the ocean where Blake can be reunited with the spirit world, and with the psychotic bounty hunter Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen) closing in on their trail.
While film does end on a climatic note, the narrative itself is anti-climatic with the characters stories ending abruptly with their deaths. As in real life, death doesn’t always make for a neat narrative resolution, but rather leaves the survivors with the task of struggling to find meaning in the arc of the character’s lives. While many viewers are left feeling cheated by the ending of the movie (That’s it?, was the reaction I remember many people having watching it in the theatre and on DVD.) I can’t imagine the film ending in any other way and wonder what people were expecting was going to happen.
In retrospect I am not sure why I have more patience for a film like Dead Man which clocks in at 121 minutes, than say Ed Wood which is just slightly longer at 127 minutes. Perhaps, it’s because a movie like Ed Wood feels like its trying to cram too much narrative into the time its given, where as a movie like Dead Man gives the narrative and characters room to breathe without rushing the story along.
While Depp is the central character in this movie and helps make Blake’s transformation believable, the film succeeds as a result of a group effort from Jarmusch’s directing to the unbelievable ensemble cast and all the cinematography and art direction in between. A film with a lot of subtle and not so subtle commentary on the fabric of the America, its a film I’d highly recommend.
By the Numbers…
- Dead Man is Depp’s second role in a black and white film after Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).
- Depp’s character William Blake wears a Jaxon or John Bull Topper throughout the film. It’s the third film in which his character wears a distinctive hat. The other two films being Benny and Joon (1993) and Don Juan DeMarco (1995).
- It’s the second film in which a character played by Depp has a connection to Native American or Aboriginal character. The other was the Inuit hunter in Arizona Dream (1992).
- The first line of dialogue is not spoken until almost 6 minutes into the film.
The 1995 “mainstream” movie Nick of Time in which Johnny plays someone’s DAD!