Jim Jarmusch’s most stunning achievement, Dead Man is a period piece. What’s more, it’s one that draws directly upon a genre (the western), standing apart from Jarmusch’s other work categorically as well. Johnny Depp plays William Blake, who ventures westward by train to the dystopian town of Machine in search of work. While there, he meets Thel (Mili Avital), whose boyfriend (Gabriel Bryne) catches them in bed. The violence that ensues causes Blake to scramble across the wilderness with a bullet in his chest. Pursued by savage bounty hunters, his journey is an extended death scene—he avoids one meeting with mortality before encountering another.
Depp’s Blake doesn’t quite grasp the coincidence of his name, which is pointed out to him when he befriends Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native American familiar with the works of Blake the poet, a fact that instigates a stream of droll comedy. More than minor confusion, though, Dead Man situates Depp’s Blake as an ignorant everyman, unaware of his namesake just as Nobody is unaware that this Blake is not the same as that Blake. While Jarmusch undoubtedly got a few kicks letting his audience groove on the joke, he’s up to something deeper and more poignant—and he doesn’t let a viewer sit lazily from his or her more omniscient vantage point.
Blake encounters a world of danger and decay rather than promise and freedom—the significance of Jarmusch’s particular brand of hellishness is important. In 1893 (exactly a century after Blake the poet printed his America a Prophecy) the historian Frederick Jackson Turner advanced a tremendous and controversial thesis about American history. Its essential thrust was this: America’s frontier was a vital factor in its national character, and that the frontier had run out. (This offered a historical context for the United States’s swift and subsequent interventions into the Philippines, Central America, and the Caribbean during the turn of the century.) Dead Man suggests that the American West was indeed vital, but was a place of death rather than growth. Instead of an optimistic assessment of virgin land and opportunity, the film presents the spread of what one might call “white blight,” the viral meanness and ignorance spread by European industrialism onto the lands of the lands of the indigenous tribes. That Jarmusch respects but thankfully falls short of romanticizing his Native American characters is one of Dead Man’s more singular points of interest.
Like most great westerns, Dead Man holds the American West and its (white) inhabitants up to close scrutiny, and in this sense its radicalism surpasses virtually every earlier example. While didacticism is not Jarmusch’s goal, there is something instructive about Dead Man’s critique. The film’s power is impossible to extrapolate from its commentary on history and society. One cannot overlook its acknowledgment of environmental degradation associated with progress, its depiction of an indigenous people’s ambivalence to whites and their encroachment, and its nuanced grasp of violence, particularly gun violence (not a simple “anti-gun” op-ed, but a beautifully literal rendition of firearms’ deployment by people in moments of passion, stupidity, and cold anger).
And yet I don’t mean to suggest that Dead Man is above anything else a sociopolitical screed: it is this in conjunction with its literary touchstones, its narrative push, and its formal rigor. Jarmusch applies his low-key tone here as in his previous films, so that the scenes and characters (eccentric and sometimes opaque) acquire a peculiar sense of hazy reality that punctures any notion of the heroic West, while at the same time existing on a suggestive, oneiric plane. When Blake rides the train early in the film, deliberately paced blackouts provide texture for his drifting in and out of consciousness. Each time he awakens, further into the frontier than before, he sees a rowdier bunch of passengers. Neil Young’s guitar on the soundtrack parallels the visual and dramatic program, which is hypnotic yet discordant.
The ultimate goal for Depp’s Blake is one of consciousness. He must come to an understanding of his own life-and-death as he lumbers through the American West like a wounded animal in search of solitude. His existence in the West is a veritable transition from Innocence to Experience. Eventually he must resign himself to his fate and, as Blake put it in his “Book of Thel,” he will “gentle sleep the sleep of death.” More than simply being critical of a West that great artists have already attacked for decades, Jarmusch is interested in suggesting something distinctive and otherworldly, where Blake’s visionary poetry and New York hipsterism might commingle in a setting alien to them both. He tears down one mythopoetic image of West and in its place resurrects his own, which valorizes nothing so much as the agonizing flirtation one has with an enlightenment that might never come.