By Afra Nariman
Dead Man (1995)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Iggy Pop, John Hurt
After killing a man, William Blake (played by Johnny Depp) escapes into the woods and meets a Native American man named Nobody (played by Gary Farmer), who prepares him for his inevitable and imminent death.
An element of the most dynamic and powerful works of art is their ability to overwhelm you, to enchant you and take control of your senses. Dead Man is an example of a film that is reminiscent of powerful art. The film is hypnotic with its combination of black and white visuals, sound and story. The musical score of the film is improvised by the legendary Neil Young, and nothing could have captured the aura of the film more accurately. His music is played throughout, altering its volume, and cutting in and out when dialogue is needed. The film’s story, pace and cinematography seem to be in perfect unison with Young’s improvised style of music. It often times feels like Jarmusch is orchestrating a symphony that is unfolding on screen, with incredible music and camerawork carrying out his vision of a new twist on the Western genre. The film may go at a relatively slow pace, but its so hypnotically infused with powerful visuals and sounds, that the time passes by without you noticing. The artistic elements of the film are as prevalent to the viewing experience as anything; to review this film without constant integration of how these elements evolve throughout the film would be a disservice to all involved.
Before the film begins we are presented with a quote to introduce us to the story:
The use of this quote captures the essence of the film we’re about to watch and sets the mood for what’s to come. The two components of the quote are implicative of the two main components of Dead Man: Travel/journey and Death. The film opens with Blake riding on a train, headed to the city of Machine, where he expects a job lined up for him as an accountant. This is the first ode to travel in the film; the others being the trek that Blake and Nobody embark on for the bulk of the film and the final journey towards death for Blake. The mood is established from the very beginning with silence, other than the sound of the train clashing with the tracks as it cruises forward, and the mesmerizing music of Neil Young pulling us into the story. We can see how different Blake is from everyone else on board. He’s wearing a plaid suit and a top hat, and while everyone else seems to be carrying a gun, Blake has a book in his hand instead. The silence subdues when the train fireman comes and sits across Blake, the residue of coal covering his face and clothing. The first words of the film are spoken by him when he says:
"Look out the window. And doesn't this remind you of when you were in the boat, and then later than night, you were lying, looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the landscape, and you think to yourself, "Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?"
This statement by the train operator being the first thing Blake hears on his journey to a new life is ironic because it describes the last thing he sees before dying at the film’s conclusion. As he is sent out to sea on the boat, he stares into the sky and sees it moving. The train fireman continues to foreshadow the events of the film. Next, he says:
"I'll tell you one thing for sure... I wouldn't trust no words written down on no piece of paper, especially from no Dickinson out in the town of Machine... you're just as likely to find your own grave."
He also says:
"That doesn't explain why you've come all the way out here... all the way out here to hell."
Blake soon realizes that he really did arrive in hell.
Shortly after exiting the train, Blake walks slowly through the town of Machine and looks around to witness a town full of strange people so unlike him; there are bones on the ground, and everyone is staring at him as the hypnotic music surrounds the entire aesthetic. He makes his way to Mr. Dickinson, the man he expected would be employing him, to find that the train operator was right: he shouldn’t have trusted the words on the paper. He was sent away with nowhere to go, so he decided to go get a drink at the local saloon. That’s where he meets Thel, a beautiful woman who takes him back to her home. Soon after, her ex-fiancé walks in the door and catches them in bed together. Things escalate, causing the ex-fiancé to shoot and kill Thel, and leave a bullet lodged in Blake’s chest. In retaliation, Blake shoots and kills the ex-fiancé. And so, Blake’s journey begins…
He escapes to the woods where he soon meets a Native American man named Nobody. Unluckily for Blake, the man he killed was the son of his should-be employer, Mr. Dickinson. And the horse he escaped with also happened to be Dickinson’s. Enraged, Mr. Dickinson puts a bounty on Blake, and hires the three most lethal killers in the area to hunt him down. As Nobody prepares Blake for his inevitable death, they must also outrun the bounty on Blake’s head.
Jarmusch also incorporates the real-life tension between Native Americans and those who would massacre their villages. Multiple times throughout the film we see the violent acts that exhibit a level of prejudice and racism towards the Native Americans. We see this through the destruction of their homes and families, and very bluntly in the trading post near the end of the film. Nobody claims that the blankets sold to Native Americans at the trading post are infected, and later when they go inside the store, the clerk refuses to sell tobacco to Nobody, but is willing to sell it to Blake. The racist tension is also apparent in Nobody’s background story. He was captured by “white men” and taken in a cage to different cities and paraded around. He eventually began to learn their ways and their mannerisms, in hopes that they would become less interested in him, but instead they sent him to school. It was as a student that he read the poems of William Blake. As a comedic element of the film, Nobody believes that the William Blake he is traveling with is the poet and painter he studied in school. Even when Blake claims he knows nothing about poetry, Nobody receives that as Blake being modest.
A main theme in practically all of Jarmusch’s films is the life of the misfit. The main characters in all of his films are misfits in society, and Dead Man is no different. From the very beginning we saw Blake stand out from those around him; on the train and in the town, his status as a misfit was utterly apparent. Nobody’s status as a misfit becomes known when he is telling Blake his background story. His blood is mixed from two different tribes, and neither tribe particularly accepted him. Moreover, when he returned after his experiences with the “white men,” he was shunned, called a liar, and given a name that translates to, “he who talks loud, says nothing.” So the story is following the journey of two misfits, who come from different worlds, and bond over their growing respect for one another.
The bulk of the substance in Dead Man comes from it’s spiritual and symbolic meaning. Jarmusch presented Native American beliefs and wisdom in a very detailed and accurate fashion. From the moment they meet, Nobody and Blake set out on a journey to prepare Blake for death. On their path, Nobody speaks symbolically through the wisdom of his people. He also recites a verse from the poetry of poet William Blake:
The last line of the verse is repeated at times throughout the film by both Nobody and Blake. The main gist of these lines is the idea of impermanence; nothing is forever. One day, your life may be going well, and the next day, the opposite. Nobody recites the poem to Blake at night, signifying and stressing to Blake not to despair; that when he wakes, it will be a new day. This can also be understood as the transition between the world of the living to the world of the spirits, which is the final step for Blake in the path of preparation set forward by Nobody. In other words, Death is not always a terrible thing if you prepare for it and embrace it as an inevitable element of life.
Nobody has numerous scenes where he uses ambiguous and symbolic Native American wisdom as responses or lessons that he inflicts upon Blake. In a pivotal moment of the story, Nobody responds to Blake’s expression of hunger by claiming:
By saying this, Nobody is alluding to Blake’s upcoming journey towards death, into the world of the spirits and is preparing him to arrive to that world best prepared to be recognized in a good light by the spirits.
Perhaps the most important example of Nobody’s Native American tradition is his explanation of where they are going, which is the first straight forward answer we get as to how he is preparing Blake for death and where he is taking him on their journey. Explaining where they are headed, Nobody explains:
There is no discussion following this poetic description of where they are heading to. We are left to ponder them on our own. Nobody eventually takes Blake to a Native American village, where they construct a boat for him to be sent off in, and prepare him for the journey to the “other side.” Before sending him off to die in peace, Nobody says to Blake:
In other words, don’t worry about death, because once you’re gone, this world won’t concern you. So don’t waste your time fearing what won’t affect you.
The mysticism found in Dead Man through the poems of William Blake and the sporadic integration of Native American wisdom and tradition, come together with the mesmerizing music improvised by Neil Young, the unparalleled cinematography, the vast landscape and the unique story, to make a truly hypnotic film. You feel as if you are on the journey with Blake, while Nobody serves as the guide of the trip that we are experiencing on screen. The film often times has a life of its own, especially in scenes where the music is playing and all we see is what is transpiring on the screen under the backdrop of the scenic landscape. It is the artist’s job to present a story that adheres to their view of the world. That being said, Dead Man is a twist on the classic Western genre, a period piece straight out of the imagination of Jim Jarmusch.
This film tells the story of how misfits are put to the side and left alone to wander the earth, constantly looking to avoid running into those looking to rid the world of those who are different from them. It also tells the story of a man who is facing death and needs preparation before officially passing on. There are different ways of perceiving this film. Some think that Nobody is just a figment of Blake’s imagination or that the film is taking place in the spirit world, as he is coping with the fact that he has died and is searching for an answer to what that means for him.
I myself don’t view the film in that way. Dead Man is the story of a man who arrives at the gates of death unexpectedly and is at first unwilling to accept it; but after meeting a Native American man who offers him wisdom and a new perspective on the concept of death, he follows him on a journey to prepare for the death that he has found himself unexpectedly needing to cope with. The film incorporates conceptions of culture, mysticism, the reality of prejudice, and a philosophy of life and death. Although the story is very unique, detailed and has a lot of depth, there is still an element of simplicity at the core of its construction.
The film comes across as segmented parts of an enchanting poem, with hostile acts of violence and moments of light comedy sprinkled throughout, tied together by the incredibly improvised music provided by Neil Young. Johnny Depp’s versatility in acting is on full display, and Gary Farmer’s performance as Nobody perfectly captures the essence of the film. The power of art lies in its ability to take over your mind, heart and soul, just as great music does. Watching Dead Man offers the same effect as does listening to the music of artists like Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead or Neil Young himself. With the help of Neil Young, Jarmusch was able to construct a symphony of artistic brilliance in storytelling, cinematography, visuals and music with a deep and philosophical aura surrounding it. The film leaves it up to you to ponder and extrapolate what its message and meaning is on your own. Dead Man is a truly stunning example of filmmaking at its most powerful.