(Catch my previous Western film review here: Little Big Man)
Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 Western is an unconventional film by most standards. Set in a surreal, rather than in a mythical, West, an accountant named William Blake (Johnny Depp)- who may or may not be the reincarnation of the great British Romantic poet, painter, and mystic William Blake- travels aboard a train from his home in Cleveland, Ohio to some odd town out West called Machine. Prefaced with a quote by the transgressive and psychedelic Belgian poet Henri Michaux- ‘It is preferable not to travel with a dead man.’- the film opens in media res, as it were, along this young man’s journey to Machine where he has been promised a job by the town’s Metal Works.
The Train Fireman (played by one of the oddest of American actors, Crispin Glover) is the first person on the trip to speak to Blake. He asks why the young man is leaving Cleveland to come out to ‘hell’ and learns of Blake’s past misfortunes (losing both parents, having a marriage engagement fall through, and receiving the job offer). The Fireman tells Blake that Machine is the ‘end of the line’, the last station on the train’s trip before heading backward along the tracks and along the country to Cleveland. This also signifies and foreshadows Machine as the veritable end of the line for the unfortunate Blake. Before his arrival in Machine, an odd scenario occurs in which all of the hunters and trappers aboard the train see a herd of Buffalo in an adjacent field. All of the men onboard rush toward the windows of the train and begin gunning down the beasts, and for no obvious reason as retrieving them would be very difficult, if not nearly impossible given how far away the next train stop is from their current position.
The result of this opening coda is to make apparent the mindless brutality of America’s imperious Westward expansion throughout the 19th century, and to connect it staunchly with the motif of industrialization through the figure of the train and of the smog and grime covered Fireman aboard who works as a stoker of the engine’s unending gluttonous ingress. The soul-crushing nature of industry with the machine as a signifier of this anomic force comes into contact with the brutality of the hunters through their contiguity, and as such, begins to drive home the point, either consciously or no, that the two are linked. And as will be seen on multiple occasions throughout the film, the things that America was replacing, displacing, and destroying in its conquest for Western expansion tended to be far more beautiful, civilized, and deserving of existence than what the white colonists brought to bring in their place.
All of this becomes visually apparent in the very next sequence of the film as Blake enters Machine and finds its streets lined with coffins, the skulls of dead animals (and of a few humans), gunslingers mulling about threateningly like coiled cobras, and even a man receiving oral sex from a prostitute in an alley way. This sight, and the monstrous Metal Works down the street (whose mundane horror is expressed in every bit a Kafka-esque manner as the forlorn dystopian hell of David Lynch’s Eraserhead), are later juxtaposed with the clean, relatively tranquil, and rule-bound life of the Native American settlement Blake is whisked away to in the scenes before the film’s denouement.
When Blake enters the office of the Metal Work’s owner, he finds that the man, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in his final film role before his death in 1997), is ornery and unpredictable, and worse yet, that he has decided to hire on a different accountant as it took two months in total for the letter to reach Blake, for Blake to respond to it, and for him to make the long trip to Machine. From here, the story begins in earnest as Blake meets an ex-prostitute, spends the night with her, awakens to find her ex-lover (played by Gabriel Byrne) walking in on the scene, and then watches as he kills the woman. Blake takes two shots at the man before a third connects, and as it turns out, kills the man who is later identified as Charlie Dickinson: the son of the owner of Machine’s Metal Works.
As Blake goes on the run, the elder Dickinson hires a trio of gunslingers; Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), Conway Twill, and Johnny ‘The Kid’ Pickett; to track down Blake and bring back his head. Blake has what proves to be a serendipitous meeting with a rogue Native American man named Nobody (a nickname he prefers to the one given him by his people from whom he is an outcast: ‘He Who Talks Loudly, Saying Nothing’) who removes a bullet from the young man’s leg and later, attempts to remove one from the area next to his heart. But the bullet is lodged too deeply within and cannot be removed. As such, Blake is a dead man walking. Nobody is Western educated and knows of the powerful spiritual insight of the poet William Blake. He aides the young would-be incarnation of the poet by leading him through a vision quest and awakening him to his destiny to write poetry with the blood of white men, not through the use of the pen, but with the pistol (the metaphorical sword): Something that Blake suddenly becomes very good at using once at death’s door and unceremoniously parted with his glasses by Nobody, who later pawns them off in exchange for tobacco.
Dead Man is formally a synthesis Western, and I do mean this in the most traditional Hegelian sense. The traditional Western is a narrative of good vs. evil, of the triumph of good in the end, and those films typically trade in metaphors and symbols linking it to basic Christianity (and I do mean basic as opposed to something like awakened, or scholarly Christianity, or at the very least Christianity fostered by an appreciation of poetic literature in the OT canon like Job or Proverbs). The Revisionist Western of the 60s and 70s American counterculture, of the New Hollywood filmmakers, tended toward total dismissal of anything like a moral structure in the world, saw the plains of our Westward expansion as ones in which nihilistic borderline sociopaths and psychopaths fought it out in a moral vacuum without the oppressive regime of law and order to stop them. It was, considered within that generic formulation, a world with no god and no need of morality for mere social cohesion, and as such, everything was permitted.
The genius of Jim Jarmusch’s Western is that it classically sublimates the nihilism of Revisionist Westerns by affirming a more nuanced and esoteric spiritual tradition drawn partially from Native American religion and partially from Christian Mysticism like that propounded by his protagonist’s namesake. It is a Mystical Western that exchanges good and evil entirely for moral ambiguity, moral precepts for enigmatic fables and mysteries, Christian symbolic structure (and anti-structure, which is still hopelessly knotted up with Christian structural motifs) with a world religion based on no organizational principles. And in denying the trad Western’s metaphysics as well as brute nihilism (which is just as soul-crushing as industrialization and modernity, and thereby demonstrates Revisionism’s inability to break out from the deep structures binding it at a very basic level), Dead Man becomes a Western text within which I am more at home than almost any other I have seen.
Rounded out by great performances by those named above as well as John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, and Iggy Pop; carrying shades of psychedelic and surreal motifs that make it one of the foremost examples of the Acid Western genre; including a spare guitar score by none other than the great Americana minstrel Neil Young; and being shot in a beautiful monochrome black and white cinematographic style ala the late Robby Muller (whose other work with Jarmusch includes such classics as Mystery Train and Ghost Dog), Dead Man is a virtuoso performance by Jim Jarmusch as director-composer of this work. And although not my favorite Jarmusch film, I find it hard not to admit that it is his best.
[Next up: A Lawless Street]