In Dead Man, the Myth of the West Railroads Its Anti-Heroes to Their Doom

Jim Jarmusch’s grimly absurd Western turns 25.

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In <i>Dead Man</i>, the Myth of the West Railroads Its Anti-Heroes to Their Doom

Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night

—from “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake

America’s centuries-long westward colonial expansion is a global obsession—a kind of Platonic ideal of freedom and self-determination that dominated American genre fiction for basically an entire century, and its decline happened right at the same time Hollywood’s Golden Age faltered and started to produce more unsparing portraits of the country. The history of the West inspired creators from around the world to dabble in its sandbox, eventually mutating the Western from a pulp genre about black hats and white hats and the schoolmarms caught betwixt them, to one that could provide the setting for an exploration of acid-soaked mysticism.

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) returned to the West years after many film historians might say we’d already seen the last relevant word on it—whether you want to call that last word the disastrous Heaven’s Gate (1980) or Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), in which he directed, produced and starred in an explicit deconstruction of the storytelling mode that made him a household name. Even Clint knew it was time to start interrogating the mythmaking, even if it ends in almost exactly the kind of gun battle he spends most of the movie debunking.

Unlike Eastwood, it doesn’t seem as if Jarmusch came to break the Western down—or if he did, I don’t think he succeeds. Indeed, his black-and-white trip to the lawless frontier is, if anything, concerned with the power of the myths surrounding that place, and what they do to everyone steeped in them.

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Nobody: “Do you have any tobacco?” Blake: “I don’t smoke.”

William Blake (Johnny Depp) slips in and out of sleep as he occupies the same seat aboard a locomotive steaming ever westward. In the first wordless few minutes of the film, we see repetitive shots of Blake awakening, blearily taking in his fellow passengers as they become rougher and maler with each stop, and then we see the mechanism of the train chugging on, never stopping, as the scenery outside remains pristine and uncaring, and he slips again into the fitful sleep of a long-haul traveler. It is long before his fellow passengers are all bearded, gun-toting cow-pokes that he begins to feel out of place—we get the impression that this spectacled, checker-suited Ohioan would be out of place no matter where he is. By the time another wild-eyed traveler (Crispen Glover) speaks to him of his doom, it’s clear he’s already missed the last stop that could save him from whatever awaits.

Orphaned and with a prospective marriage having fallen through, Blake was sent a message that he’s been hired as an accountant in the town of Machine, but upon arriving (it’s the end of the line), he finds a hole in the ground where civilization barely exists and everyone, no matter what the context, is toting a gun. His job has already been filled, and the other clerks laugh at him after the unhinged boss-man (Robert Mitchum, in the film’s big casting coup) points a shotgun at him and tells him to buzz off. Penniless and adrift, Blake helps a flower girl who has been kicked into the mud, ending up in bed with her in what seems to us to be a charged but harmless encounter. When her estranged husband comes home, it all ends in violence, with husband and wife dead and Blake wounded and on the lam.

As it turns out, the jilted lover was the factory boss’ son. The boss is the sort who commissions a life-sized portrait of himself, stuffs a bear to put in his office, and points a shotgun at anybody who happens to be in front of his desk, so it stands to reason he’s also the sort who will hire outlaws to track down his son’s killer. We follow these gunslingers (Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott and Eugene Byrd) as they track down Blake, their scenes interspersed with Blake’s travels alongside his strange Native American savior, a loner who calls himself Nobody (Gary Farmer, whose help Jarmusch enlisted by driving four hours from Toronto to his off-the-grid house for a script read).

Nobody rather innocently believes that Blake is the William Blake, the British Romantic, and that the words he fervently quotes were written by Depp’s character. This is because, as he tells us, he was abducted by the British and trained to be a sideshow amusement for them, finding his way back to his ancestral lands to find his own people shunning him with the Shakespearean moniker “One Who Talks Loudly and Says Nothing,” making his adoption of the name “Nobody” understandable. Nobody has been railroaded along a path that has made him into a weird, lone figure of the wild, and we watch as Nobody slowly encourages Blake’s similar transformation.

Before long, Blake is wearing face paint and gunning down the other uncouth inhabitants of the West who are out to collect his ever-growing bounty. All the while, Henriksen’s cold-hearted killer proves that he’s every bit as dangerous as his own legend, eventually divesting himself violently of his two partners.

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Speaking about the film, Jarmusch recalled that he could barely get the thing made due to the challenges of filming on location in Arizona, Nevada and up into the Pacific Northwest, in places remote enough that modern infrastructure wasn’t anywhere in evidence. It didn’t help, he said, that money men weren’t thrilled with his decision to shoot in black and white.

“I’m not a big John Ford fan,” Jarmusch said, saying he was drawn to the many less formulaic Westerns by creators like Boetticher and Peckinpah. “What the films contain have always been problematic for me… I have a strong feelings for an aboriginal culture, Native American culture that I find very insulted by Ford’s films.”

Jarmusch said he spent time reading Native American writers as he composed the script, and found that William Blake’s language sounded, to him, as if it mirrored Native American aphorisms. (“It really was because William Blake wanted me to put him in the film somehow,” Jarmusch said.)

The score—entirely composed of one haunted electric guitar—came together after he sent Neil Young a rough cut of the film, and it gives the proceedings an appropriately lonely feel. In a very odd missed opportunity that would have made this one of the most mid-’90s movies in film history, Young originally suggested to Jarmusch that he bring on the surviving members of Nirvana to help score the film, but then agreed with Jarmusch’s idea to have Young do it alone, on just one instrument.

Ultimately, the movie failed to make much of a splash in its time. It nonetheless remains one of Jarmusch’s most distinctive movies in a career in which he’s worked with everybody from Roberto Benigni and Bill Murray to members of the Wu-Tang Clan.

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Dead Man does not look or feel like a Western—the black-and-white film and close-up dialogue scenes aren’t anywhere in the same hemisphere, aesthetically speaking, as genre classics—but it recalls them just enough that the times the movie dives headfirst into its quickdraw gunfights are invested with a feeling of being fated (really, being doomed) to happen. One of the first things Blake says, and one of the last, is the same thing: When asked if he has any tobacco, he calmly explains, “I don’t smoke.”

But the West wants him to smoke. It wants him to slap leather and rack up an ever higher dollar amount on his wanted poster. He is bound westward, a journey that can only end where the sea meets the sky. Some, as his namesake once wrote, are born to endless night.


Kenneth Lowe holds infinity in his hand and eternity in an hour. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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