“Dead Man” Review


Dead Man


I chose this film because I am a big fan of westerns and this is one of my favorites because it is a unique and compelling interpretation of the genre. This is to say that while the film has many of the elements of a classic western, I see it as an anti western because at this point industry has moved in and for all intensive purposes the west has been won. I think it effectively portrays the end of the frontier way of life. I also particularly like the style and acting throughout, particularly with respect to the portrayal of Native Americans.

 Dead Man is not a western in the traditional sense and many would no doubt argue that it should not be classified in the western genre.  There are elements in the plot and narrative that make this a western film, but the main characters are in most ways the opposite of the western hero or antihero.  One way to examine the heroes of the early western films and the antiheros of the later films is to look at this film which turns these traditional characters on their respective heads.  We can define and understand the classic western genre better by looking at a purposefully made reversal.  The point of view of Johnny Depp’s character William Blake is also a polar perspective from the traditional western.  The director tries to establish an anti- western set in a western setting.  This is confusing until we realize that the reversal is meant to show a hero who is simply not possessed of the same chivalric qualities of the classic western heroes.

The film is written and directed by Jim Jarmusch who is known for his experimental style. He describes this film as a “Psychedelic western” and the surreal quality of the film supports this description well.

There are several elements that make the film work stylistically, the most prominent being the soundtrack. The film is scored by Neil Young and consists of an electric guitar played throughout. The sound serves as transitions as well as emphasis at key points. The other element that enforces the overall surreal quality is the use of high contrast black and white film. The frame is often off balance and the shot composition seems cluttered yet fascinating at times. This provides us with a very compelling visual narrative.

The theme of the film is that Blake is killed near the beginning of the film and is being led into the afterlife. We see imagery of death throughout the film, particularly during Blake’s peyote vision quest where he embraces a dead fawn and paints his face with blood. The most disturbing image of this kind is of a marshal Blake kills and lying on the ground, resembles a Christian saint. The disturbing part comes when the bounty hunter Cole crushes the dead marshal’s skull like an orange. This adds shock and defines the sadistic nature of the pursuer.

            The film begins on a train going from east to west and each time Blake falls asleep the landscape changes and his neighbors evolve from well-dressed ladies and gentlemen to fur clad trappers shooting buffalo out the windows for fun. The landscape and attire of most of the characters in the film are initially the same as they would be in any classic western. For example, in the first scene, looking out the train window we see the familiar massive desert rocks that are the backdrop to so many previous westerns.  This pretext is quickly dropped as Blake enters the town of Machine where the traditional small western town is covered in soot and beaten, suspicious characters.  The town does have a western feel to it and could be the result of the kind of industrialization that the heroes in The Wild Bunch are fighting against.

 Quickly, however, and for the rest of the film, Blake is moving through large forests that have no resemblance to the standard western frontier. The trees progress from thin white birch to giant redwoods as Blake nears the end of his journey.  Though the forests have the same qualities inherent in the classic frontier scene, such as isolation and primitiveness, the open impressive landscapes that are a staple of the western genre are gone.

            The central characteristics of the western hero are determination and toughness.  They know exactly what to do in every situation even if it is incorrect, and are immovable once set in motion.  The hero in westerns is a representative of good and comes to the aid of civilization while at heart still in his element in the wild untamed lands.  These characteristics and theme are very much lacking in the film as Blake is certainly not tough and blindly moves in the direction fates takes him.

  He starts out as an educated easterner, complete with plaid suit and top hat, moving out west because his parents died and his girlfriend left him.  He is lost even before he enters the wilderness and looks like an overweight ten year old would bully him around.  His trade is accounting, probably the most civilized and out of place occupation in the west at that time.  Blake is also extremely passive throughout the entire film, a characteristic that would never be seen in a western character.  This is seen in an almost comic light because at first he kills people with a surprised, confused look on his face. Blake’s initial embodiment of civilization makes for great irony later on because the bounty hunters tracking him are being paid by the steel mill and yet are the embodiment of the frontier.

 Although he eventually becomes quite good at killing people, he can not provide food or navigation for himself and must rely to a large extent on his Indian admirer: “Nobody”.  Nobody was kidnapped and taken to England where he studied poetry. As a result he was given the name “he who talks loud, says nothing” but prefers to be called Nobody. Blake does not in fact have a destination and is lead around by Nobody the entire film.  Blake is shot in the chest after being denied a job and meeting a woman who is spoken for. We first meet Nobody as Blake wakes up to find the obese Native American digging in his chest to get the bullet out. Nobody regards Blake as a dead man from this point on and moves to abandon the “stupid fucking white man” until he comes to the conclusion that William Blake is the spirit of the great poet William Blake. An ardent admirer of the poet, Nobody resolves to take the spirit to the place where “the sea meets the sky” so his spirit can return to the afterlife. Nobody also greatly admires Blake’s natural prowess with regard to killing white men.

As Blake progresses further into the wilderness, civilization is gradually stripped from him and it is his motives that remain distinct from the western hero.  In short, he has no motives or desires past food and survival, and the latter is debatable.  In fact the only expression of need is a complaint of hunger when Nobody eats all the peyote and leaves Blake hungry.  Even his reasons for killing people seem ambiguous at times.  He completely turns his back on civilization by killing marshals and anyone trying to collect the reward on his head. He also embraces nature to an extent that it seems as though all memory of the civilized east is lost.

            The roles of the Native Americans are very distinct from their traditional roles in that they are more than one dimensional characters.  The Indian in genre westerns is generally hostile though is also infrequently regarded as a child of nature.  In the film, Nobody is given depth of character and Blake himself picks up some customs from his admirer.  Nobody dresses Blake’s wounds and takes him to a village which is adorned with totem poles and other cultural items.  This village contrasts with the town of Machine as it is clean and well kept, not a soot covered mud pit. The Native American culture is given a central role in this film whereas in genre westerns are never given more than a cursory glance.

            The greatest similarity between Dead Man and the classic western is with respect to the villains.  They are representatives of the large smelly smokestacks we see when Blake first comes into town.  Mr. Dickinson, the owner of the steel mill, hires the “finest killers of men and injuns” to go after Blake for killing his son, but seems much more concerned with recovering his horse than avenging his son’s death.  The hunters; a boy, a loudmouth, and a cannibal set off and are soon shown to be much more evil than expected (except for the loudmouth, who is just stupid).  The director makes a point of showing gruesome acts by the hunters and other people on the trail, particularly the Cole the cannibal, to create the image of what a frontiersman is like in this version of the west. This can also be seen as a contrast to one of the classic depictions of Native Americans as savage cannibals.

            The film ends with the death of all the main characters which seems proper as we can’t imagine an epilogue. Blake is going on to the spirit world and Nobody and the remaining bounty hunter kill each other simultaneously.

            The director commented that westerns were a “Fantasy world that America has used to process its own history” and tries here to convey a sense of fairness if not realism. Looking at the film as an accurate version of a western is not correct because although we have to suspend reality, Dead Man does not magically capture what the west at that time was like.  Jarmusch instead creates almost the polar opposite of the genre western to show a radically different point of view. That view is certainly more modern and gruesome but not more or less accurate than the western films that preceded it.
















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