Dead Man is an elegiac poem of a film that examines our country’s shameful history of viciousness and racism.
Under the portentous strum of Neil Young’s electric guitar, a stranger wanders through an alien landscape. It is a place of violence, a land in transition where ruthless capitalists destroy pristine wilderness and murder the people who have lived there for generations. This is the 19th century America of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, an elegiac poem of a film that transports us to a place and time out of synch with the history books but one that still examines our country’s shameful history of viciousness and racism.
The stranger is William Blake (Johnny Depp) an accountant from Cleveland who journeys west into the frontier on the promise of a job. After arriving in Machine, a godforsaken town of muddy streets and violent men, Blake learns that the position at Dickinson Metalworks has been given to someone else. After a series of misunderstandings, Blake is mortally wounded and on the run after being accused of murdering the son (Gabriel Byrne) of the local metal magnate (Robert Mitchum). He is saved by Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native American who believes that Blake is in fact the William Blake, the poet whom the banker has never read. Nobody becomes Blake’s guide, helping him transition from the world of the living into the land of the dead.
According to critic Amy Taubin, Dead Man can be read three different ways. The first is that the entire movie is simply a hallucination that exists in the mind of the dying Blake. Shot through the heart by what Nobody calls “white man’s metal,” Farmer spends much of the film wounded and staggering on a journey that takes him from the Southwest to the Pacific Northwest. Another view of the film is that he has already expired and that Nobody leads him through a sort of Purgatory. Lastly, Nobody could be teaching this so-called “stupid fucking white man” how to die.
“Can I see another’s woe/ And not be in sorrow too?/ Can I see another’s grief/ And not seek for kind relief?” William Blake asks in “On Another’s Sorrow.” Jarmusch asks a similar set of questions in Dead Man, a film filled with suffering and grief. Like Blake, Jarmusch sees a future defined by destruction of natural beauty in the name of profit. If America is formed on murder and theft, what does that say for those of us who live today? The director doesn’t make it easy for us to ignore the sadness we see on the screen. Shot in pristine black and white, Dead Man looks like it could have been made at any time, not in 1995.
Dead Man isn’t Jarmusch’s only film inspired by a poet. His latest, Paterson, features the writing of William Carlos Williams. However, this is the director’s only movie not in a contemporary setting. Like Paterson, Dead Man plays almost like it was written in film verse. Jarmusch parses the movie into small segments, interrupted by short blackouts, as if each sequence is a small poem in a collection. Depp is heavily featured in most of these segments, yet Jarmusch also follows a trio of bounty hunters out to kill Blake. Most poetic of all are the searing images Jarmusch and cinematographer Robby Müller created that will stay with the viewer long after the film ends, whether it be moments of destruction wrought by the white man or the scene where the wounded Blake cuddles against the body of a dead fawn.
The journey through so much horror finally brings Blake to a moment of sublimity. Nobody takes him to a place where the land ends and the ocean begins. He places the dying Blake in a canoe and sets him adrift into the void, telling him, “This world will no longer concern you.” Despite the accountant’s protests, Nobody is convinced that he is freeing the poet William Blake from his pain. Jarmusch ends the film with an image of beauty, of the canoe wandering away from land and towards the sea. We follow it as it drifts into the great beyond and becomes nothing more but a speck in a place where nothing but the elements exists.