It can be a terrific experience for a viewer or critic when a filmmaker achieves something in a new movie that you never dreamed he or she could achieve. American director Jim Jarmusch has always struck as a low-key director of relatively minor interest – more interesting as a public figure, a semi-celebrity of the independent film world, than an actual artist. But I withdraw all such thoughts and comments upon seeing Dead Man. This is not just his best film; it’s better than all his previous films put together.
Earlier films by Jarmusch – Stranger than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991) – have all essentially been happy to dwell in the zone of downbeat comedy and whimsy, with a tiny touch of pathos. They were among the first films of the 1980s to capture one of the prevalent moods of that decade, at least for a certain youthful, sub-mainstream sector of society. It was a post-punk mood – but leeched of anger and social critique. Jarmusch’s characters were drop-outs, nobodies, out in the sticks of America, or in the suburbs, trudging along in various, marginal existences.
His themes have become mighty familiar in the years since, in his films and those of others, such as Hal Hartley and Aki Kaurismäki. The difficulty of communication between people, the sad poetry of missed connections and opportunities, the fleeting moments of human contact lost immediately in the flow of routine and the urban crush: such was the well-trodden, Jarmusch turf.
His camerawork and mise en scène were simple to the point of deliberate flatness and banality. And Jarmusch gathered around him a troupe of actors and non-actors with definite presence, performers who specialised in that drawling, shambling, laconic energy we have also come to know well in independent film: people like Tom Waits, Eszter Balint and John Lurie.
The first thing that strikes you about Dead Man, from its initial moments, is its tone. The time is, according to the director, “sometime in the second half of the 19th century”. A man played by Johnny Depp is on a train travelling deep into the wastelands of America. There are glimpses of a barren, hellish landscape, rendered in somber black and white. Depp is hugging his luggage apprehensively but keeps falling asleep, somewhat unaccountably.
The collection of people in the train carriage keeps changing each time he awakens and looks; some of them look back at him in unreadable ways. Eventually, we get an outlandish character talking bizarrely to Depp: named Train Fireman, he’s incarnated one of the screen’s great crazies, Crispin Glover. Fireman shovels the coal on this train, so his face is absolutely blackened with soot. Everything he says is weird, menacing, predatory and apocalyptic.
The train itself, its motion, its noise and smoke, and its ultimate destination, a town called Machine – all that conjures some hellish vision of the world’s end, a vision that could have come from the beginning of the industrial revolution. Neil Young’s musical accompaniment to all of this is essentially a bunch of dark, distorted phrases scratched out on a lonesome, electric guitar. If you’re already remembering poems by William Blake at this point, then you’re on the right track, because Depp’s character happens to be named William Blake – even though he’s never heard of that poet.
That’s the start of Dead Man. It’s immediately a more serious film than anything Jarmusch has done before - not without his usual trademark humour, but now this humour is in an odd, caustic, disconcerting vein. It’s clearly going to be a mysterious film, one that’s not about to give up its secrets easily. And it’s explictly poetic from the word go, far more attune to matters of atmosphere and ambiguously symbolic imagery than to conventional plot links and motivations. Plus, although Dead Man is obviously some kind of Western, it’s not one of those smart-aleck homages to a Hollywood genre (like Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead, 1995) – it’s more like the ghostly, burnt-out shell of a Western, commandeered for sullen and obscure purposes.
It’s a journey film – a road movie of sorts, maybe a foot movie – that deliberately falls into a series of stations or tableaux. Blake arrives in this infernal town of Machine to take up an accounting job at a one-shack firm run by Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, of all people). The streets of Machine are the least friendliest scene of any Western, let me assure you. Thrown out of Dickinson’s office and left to wander, this hapless, mimsy Blake soon finds himself the victim of hard times and of trouble. He trails around the landscape, pursued by a band of three killers.
Very early on in the piece, Blake is wounded, and later he’s wounded again – he’s a “magnet for bullets”, as he drily remarks at one point. This guy’s blood is slowly dripping away, his life gradually draining out of him; and so he keeps slipping into sleep or unconsciousness. Depp does a good job here with a very difficult, extremely passive role – somewhat like River Phoenix as the narcoleptic in My Own Private Idaho (1991).
Our wan hero picks up one helpful companion – a mixed-race Native American, an outsider to his own people named (in true Sergio Leone style) Nobody. Nobody is played superbly by Gary Farmer; so much of the film’s ongoing intrigue and humour, its odd mood and resonance, is solely in his hands, and he’s a total treat. With the character of Nobody comes an entire dimension of poetic meaning and interpretation.
It’s Nobody who introduces Blake to the poetry of his namesake. In fact, Nobody takes his companion as the reincarnated spirit of that visionary and revolutionary poet, and he spells out the new Blake’s mission: “From now on, you will write your poetry with the blood of the white man” – meaning, he will write it with his gun, in death.
There are two central mysteries in this film, neither of which allow for a simple, literal solution or answer.
The first mystery concerns the very status or nature of the William Blake character. Is he alive, dead, or somewhere in between; is he some spirit passing over from one side of existence to another? Nobody, with his mythology and folklore, is naturally completely open to this spirit notion, and in fact encourages it. He sees his mission as one of helping Blake in his journey over to the “next level” of existence.
Yet there is a dark, nihilistic, mocking underside to this mythic aspect. Nobody’s hallucinogenic, peyote vision of Blake, with his face as a skeletal skull, is not exactly heartwarming. Neither is the on-screen epigraph from poet Henri Michaux: “Sometimes it is preferable not to travel with a dead man”. And when you get to the final, utterly mysterious scene of this astonishing film, you’ll truly be wondering what kind of white or black magic, what kind of sacred or profane mythology, what kind of comforting or despairing fiction, you’ve been witnessing all along.
All these ambiguities also pertain to the other, central mystery of the film. Is it really this accidental tourist’s destiny to “write poetry with the blood of the white man”? Is he the reincarnated spirit of the poet Blake, with a divine mission of bloody retribution? This is a situation we’ve seen in various modern Westerns since the era of The Left-Handed Gun (1958) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). I am referring to the situation in which somebody becomes or is transformed into the mythical or notorious, public image dangled before him; he acts it out, perhaps despite himself, gets possessed by this alter ego.
In Dead Man, this act of possession brings with it a terrible cycle of violence. Blake changes from being a passive target to a cold-blooded killer; he also seems to bring a dark cloud of death down on everyone around him.
As viewers, we can only doubt the righteousness and justice of this transformation. There are echoes in this premise of Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven (1992), in which a seemingly peaceful family man and farmer gets caught up in a cycle of revenge that unleashes his buried, monstrous, immoral, killing-machine side. And in the hellish, junkyard atmosphere of Dead Man, beautifully created by Jarmusch and his collaborators, there’s another echo of an earlier Eastwood Western about a mysterious figure on an apocalyptic justice quest: High Plains Drifter (1973).
As I’ve suggested, Dead Man is an unusual kind of Western. Unusual, in the first place, bcause its references are not the standard or classic ones: Shane (1953), Rio Bravo (1959) or The Searchers (1956). Jarmusch has a more intimate feel for the tradition of “mutant Westerns” that began in the 1960s. I’ve already mentioned, from this mutant tradition, Eastwood and Leone. Jarmusch is clearly even more attracted to those oddball Westerns mixing Western plots with the behavioural tics and cadences, and off-beat humour, of Beat literature or poetry. I’m thinking here of the sole film directed by Marlon Brando, One-Eyed Jacks (1961); and especially of Monte Hellman’s remarkable Westerns starring Jack Nicholson, The Shooting (1967) and Ride In the Whirlwind (1965).
One thread in Dead Man that I haven’t discussed so far concerns the three bounty hunters – who are strangers to each other– on Blake’s trail. The first is wild Johnny “The Kid” Pickett (Eugene Byrd); the second an hornery character, Conway Twill (Michael Wincott), who just can’t keep his damn mouth shut; and the third is a mysterious older man, Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), with a reputation for cannibalism and other, equally perverse acts. Their uneasy trek together across the countryside is pure Hellman. And it gives the film its streak of strong, black, nutty humour. Only a bizarrely homphobic interlude with Iggy Pop in a dress puts this comic vein of the movie off-kilter for a moment.
Dead Man is among the best films of the 1990s. I deeply admire the risk, the enormous, artistic leap that Jarmusch has taken here. All throughout, I kept asking myself: did this strange conjunction of Blake’s poetry, Native American myths and the modern Western come to Jarmusch in a dream? If so, he had the wherewithal to listen to his unconscious, and work with it. I won’t call the film surreal, since that’s a rather abused adjective these days. But I will call it genuinely dreamlike. The obvious artifice of the film’s digital, special effects adds to this dreamlike quality. And, as in a dream, the simplest things carry the uncanniest resonances, and hide the most mysterious secrets.
There’s a fantastic scene near the end of Dead Man where Blake, on his last legs, is taken by Nobody to a Native American reservation. The action is simple, as it always is in a Jarmusch scene: Blake just has to walk from one end of the camp to the other – he has to make it that far, with Nobody and others propping him up, urging him on. “Keep walking, William Blake”, says Nobody in his ear, over and over. Why is this simple, climactic action of walking so compelling, so hypnotic, so full, simultaneously, of dread and wonder?
No merely rational film critique can fully answer that one. Dead Man is the flower of a secret; you have to approach it in a properly suspended state. And not too many films of the 1990s work on such a special, elevated, dreamlike plateau.
© Adrian Martin April 1996