Dead Man (1995): Jim Jarmusch's psychedelic Western grappling with existentialism and spirituality

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

Dead Man is a 1995 Revisionist Western film written and directed by American independent film director Jim Jarmusch. Dead Man stars Johnny Depp in the lead role of an accountant-turned-outlaw William Blake. In Dead Man, Jarmusch presents the bizarre journey of a meek, naive young accountant who, after getting haplessly entangled in a deadly maelstrom, goes through an intellectual and spiritual transformation that changes his life forever. The movie also stars American character actor Gary Farmer in the enigmatic role of the outcast Native American “Nobody” aka Exaybachay who prepares Blake for his journey to the other side.

Dead Man features memorable cameos from Gabriel Bryne, John Hurt, Crispin Glover, Iggy Pop, Lance Henriksen, Billy Bob Thornton, and Robert Mitchum (his last screen performance). The movie premiered at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival.

Johnny Depp as accountant William Blake in Dead Man, Dead Man (1995), Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Johnny Depp as accountant William Blake in Dead Man
While any typical road movie could have served as an effective vehicle for the propagation of Blake's quaint tale, Jarmusch defiantly opts to make a Western based on his belief that the Western as a genre is “very open to metaphor, and has deep roots in classical narrative forms.” But, Dead Man is far from being a conventional Western. Jarmusch basically leverages upon flexibility of the form and its umbilical link to America to concoct a far more complex work of art that not only transcends genres, but also deals with existential and spiritual motifs.   

Over the years, the Western genre has often been looked upon by less gifted filmmakers as a convenient framework to transform their commonplace ideas into financially successful films based on tried and tested themes like revenge, redemption and tragedy. In the recent years, several unsuccessful attempts have been made to resuscitate the genre by preposterously blending it with the elements of Sci-Fi. Owing to the dearth of ideas that combine novelty with practicability the Western genre, from time to time, finds itself on the brink of obsolescence.

Gary Farmer as the outcast Native American “Nobody” aka Exaybachay in Dead Man (1995), Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Gary Farmer as “Nobody” aka Exaybachay in Dead Man
But, every now and then a powerful Revisionist Western emerges out of nowhere giving the moribund genre a new lease of life—albeit only temporarily.

The greatest undoing of the Western genre has been the underlining mediocrity of the run-of-the-mill Westerns of the ‘40s and the ‘50s. The stereotype that the Western is a simplistic, racist and misogynistic genre lingers on, occluding the reality that the Westerns are fully capable of presenting complex themes that highlight the conflict of savagery versus civilization, morality versus law, life versus death, etc.

With Dead Man, Jarmusch succeeds in giving the Western genre his personal touch by ingeniously building upon the aforementioned complex motifs to formulate a powerful cinematic treatise enriched with several vital elements of poetry like metaphors, symbolism, allusion, and imagery.   

Mili Avital as prostitute Thel Russell in Dead Man, town of Machine, Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Mili Avital as Thel Russell in Dead Man
Depp’s character in Dead Man is a namesake of the English poet William Blake. The association apparently is not limited to the name alone. Dead Man has multiple references to the poetry of William Blake. In fact, most of Exaybachay’s recitations in the movie are taken from Blake’s poems like The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Auguries of Innocence, The Everlasting Gospel, etc. 

Anyone who has seen the movie would remember the bizarrely sublime (taken from the aforementioned The Marriage of Heaven): “The eagle never lost so much time, as when he submitted to learn from the crow.” Thel (beautifully played by Mili Avital), the name of the prostitute who sells paper flowers, is also a reference to William Blake's The Book of Thel. And to top it all, the all-knowing Exaybachay, an ardent William Blake admirer, believes the accountant Blake to be a reincarnation of the dead English poet.

Johnny Depp as William Blake aims his pistol at the racist shopkeeper, Gary Farmer as Nobody in Dead Man, Directed by Jim Jarmusch
A Still from Jim Jasmusch's Dead Man
Jarmusch also makes several references to the 20th century American culture. Benmont Tench, the character played by Jared Harris, is named after the American rock band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench. Big George Drakoulias, Billy Bob Thornton's character in the movie, is a tribute to the record producer George Drakoulias. The names of the marshals chasing Blake are Lee Hazlewood and Marvin Throne-berry—homage to the American country and pop singer Lee Hazlewood, American Major League Baseball player Marv Throneberry as well as the American actor Lee Marvin. “He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing," Exaybachay’s quip to underline his preferred name “Nobody,” is actually a reference to the James Brown song "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing".

Dead Man’s quirky plot makes it a difficult movie to decipher and hence appreciate. And the fact that it’s replete with metaphors, symbolism and allusions makes it as challenging as an enigma wrapped inside a riddle, especially to the uninitiated viewer. Hence, it’s essential to delineate some crucial aspects.

The senseless shooting of the buffaloes from the train, town of Machine, Dead Man (1995), Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Dead Man: The senseless shooting of the buffaloes
First, it is important to understand that Jarmusch presents the movie in form of a parable about the decadent morality of the machine age. 

While the frontier company town of Machine symbolizes the age of industrialization, its unscrupulous residents are symbolic of the endless adversities of the modern age. 

The senseless shooting of the buffaloes from the train underline the diabolical destruction of nature perpetuated by the mankind.

Second, the viewer must be aware that the movie has several ambiguous elements which confound the things further. The movie, for example, offers no categorical answer to certain important questions.

"Nobody" (Exaybachay) sees a Dead Man in William Blake, Dead Man, Directed by Jim Jarsmusch
"Nobody" sees a Dead Man in William Blake
Was Blake alive or already dead when he meets Nobody? The movie offers evidence to support both the cases. Sounds like an exaggeration? Just have a look at the following conversation between Blake and Exaybachay!

William Blake: What is your name?
Nobody: My name is Nobody.
William Blake: Excuse me?
Nobody: My name is Exaybachay. He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing.
William Blake: He who talks... I thought you said your name was Nobody.
Nobody: I preferred to be called Nobody.
Nobody: Did you kill the white man who killed you?
William Blake: I'm not dead. Am I?

Johnny Depp as William Blake takes a psychedelic boat ride, Dead Man, Directed by Jim Jarsmusch
Dead Man: William Blake takes a boat ride
Third, the viewer may also look upon Jarmusch’s movie as a modern-day take on Dante’s Divine Comedy with the protagonist travelling in a much similar fashion (to Dante) through Hell (the town of Machine), Purgatory (the journey through the wilderness all the way to the sea), and Heaven (in words of Exaybachay, the next level of the world… place where the sea meets the sky).

Fourth, Exaybachay and Cole (brilliantly played by Lance Henriksen) can be perceived as good and evil angels fighting it out for Blake's soul.

Fifth, the viewer should be aware of the movie’s surrealistic motifs which may reduce (or elevate… depending upon how one looks at it) the entire journey to one grand illusion of a dying individual seeking spiritual guidance needed to attain salvation.

William Blake grieves over a dead fawn (reminiscent of Thel Russell), Dead Man, Directed by Jim Jarsmusch
Dead Man: Blake grieves over a dead fawn
Sixth, the paranormal events depicted in the movie elevate it to the realm of the fantastical. This is perhaps best exemplified by Blake’s vision quest during which he suddenly transforms into a deadly assassin, starts experiencing visions of nature spirits, and grieves over the dead body of a young deer that probably represents Thel, as evident from the wound that it bears.

If the viewer makes a note of all the above then perhaps he could begin to appreciate Dead Man.  

Overall, Dead Man is an endlessly fascinating work of cinema that is bound to elicit extreme responses from its audience: one would either love it or detest it, no midway affair. A brainchild of a non-native filmmaker, Dead Man is notable for its accurate and unbiased depiction of Native Americans, presenting with great subtlety and consideration the individual differences between various Native American tribes. The deftly blended humor and suspense gives the movie an eerie tone which plainly reflects the nauseating feeling, as experienced by movie's characters, of being stuck in a limbo. 

The three legendary frontier killers: Cole Wilson, Conway Twill, Johnny "The Kid" Pickett hired by Dickinson, The Bounty Hunters, Dead Man, Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Dead Man: The Bounty Hunters
An existential Western with surrealistic overtones, the movie is equally brilliant on both the technical and emotional fronts. It wouldn’t be a hyperbole to say that Dead Man serves to be a brilliant showcase of the very best in direction, cinematography, music and acting.

While Jarmusch’s imaginative direction is exemplary, the acting performances are equally brilliant. Johnny Depp is simply mesmerizing to watch in the portrayal (arguably his best ever) of a man deeply lost in his own visions and thoughts. There are not many actors alive who could have played the part with such finesse and conviction. 

The rest of the cast is equally brilliant with a special mention of Gary Farmer who is absolutely sublime in his portrayal of an outcast Native American.

Robby Müller's breathtaking, sumptuous black & white cinematography helps bring the images to life. Dead Man’s hypnotic electric score, composed by Neil Young by ad-libbing while watching the movie’s newly edited footage, gives the movie a very unique, alluring flavor.

Johnny Depp as William Blake, Gary Farmer as Nobody, Robby Müller's hypnotic black & white cinematography, Dead Man (1995), Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Robby Müller's hypnotic Black & White cinematography
Dead Man is not a film for the casual viewer. The patient viewer, however, would be thoroughly rewarded.  The movie may require multiple viewings for a clearer and deeper understanding. Dead Man is a must watch for anyone who values intelligent cinema that goes beyond the usual doze of entertainment and makes the viewer ruminate on what he saw long after the movie is over. 

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!

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