Dead Man

Studio: Criterion

Apr 27, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

“Do you have any tobacco?”

Dead Man, in perhaps a paradoxical sense, is both Jim Jarmusch’s most accessible film and his most impenetrable. It’s accessible in large part due to the familiar faces populating its cast, especially Johnny Depp as protagonist William Blake. It’s possibly Jarmusch’s most jam-packed cast of stars including Gabriel Byrne, Billy Bob Thornton, John Hurt, Iggy Pop, Alfred Molina, and even Robert Mitchum.

It’s also a hypnotic experience from even before a word is spoken. Blake, an accountant, is on a train from Cleveland to an isolated mining town called Machine where he is set to take over a job for Dickinson Metal Works in the wake of his parents’ deaths. He is looking for a fresh start, a new life as it were, and is almost immediately met with opposition to this ideal. Upon waking on the train he is met by a worker caked in soot from the engine (Crispin Glover looking like a precursor to the nightmarish Woodsman from last year’s Twin Peaks: The Return) who speaks to him with an intimate amount of understanding, and may also be specifically referencing the film’s finale when describing the boat and the landscape of the sky above. Glover offering these insights with his wide-eyed intensity and curious cadence only adds to the dreamlike status of the moment and the film that follows. He could be seen as an extension of Blake instead of an actual person.

Nonchalantly, the worker points to the buffalo outside the train that the rest of the passengers begin shooting at, saying that a million have been killed in the last year alone. It’s both a statement on man’s folly (and it remains relevant today) and a symbol that Blake has perhaps stepped a little too far afield. His fate is determined already.

Upon arrival in Machine, Blake learns his job has been given to someone else and John Dickinson (Mitchum) points a rifle at him when he tries to personally plead his case. Blake leaves, gets liquor, and befriends a young woman named Thel (Mili Avital) who takes him home only to later be discovered by Dickinson’s brother Charlie (Byrne) who happens to be her fiancé. Bullets fly, Thel slows a bullet meant for Blake by jumping in the way allowing him to shoot Charlie in the throat. Thel’s fatal bullet lodges in Blake’s chest and he hits the road a dying fugitive.

Until Blake is on the run, the film feels almost like Franz Kafka’s The Castle transported to a Western setting with its bureaucratic hellscape full of misunderstandings and small disasters. It’s all very hopeless. In a way, the bullet that ultimately kills Blake is also the thing that saves him from possibly a worse fate, or at least one that’s far less illuminating. Sure, he’s a fugitive but he also begins a journey of discovery – both of self and of, if not an entire culture, a portion of Native American culture that would otherwise have remained a mystery.

As a “stupid fucking white man” myself, I hesitate to declare Dean Man’s depiction of Native American tribes (Piikani – Blackfoot; Apsaalooke – Crow) as being genuine, because there will always be a certain amount of divide since Jarmusch is also a white man. But, his approach appears respectful and well researched. It comes from a curious mind and not one claiming to be an authority, maintaining his own status as an outside observer. And, if nothing else, Dead Man should act as a reminder that more films written and directed by Native Americans need to be made as those stories are vital. Gary Farmer, who plays Blake’s companion Nobody, speaks about the difficulties facing Native American and First Nations actors in one of the accompanying features. He even says that he got maybe one great role every seven years on account of how pigeon-holed and typecast he would get (Powwow Highway is mentioned as another great film he appeared in, and was possibly where Jarmusch first encountered the actor).

Nobody, like Blake in a sense, is also an outsider. He was kidnapped at a young age by British soldiers and raised in England before he eventually escaped. Upon return, he was cast aside by his people as he was no longer seen as one of them. It was in his forced excursion that Nobody discovered the poet William Blake. In one of the features, a Q&A with Jarmusch, he explains that he took a break from writing the script and researching to clear his head and happened to pick up Blake’s poetry. He saw parallels in style and message to the works he was reading by Native American icons (Black Elk mentioned) and thus Blake entered the story in multiple facets.

The door to Dead Man is easily opened. It has all the hooks from Depp at his best, years before becoming a lazy caricature of himself, to an eclectic Neil Young score that feeds the surrealism and bizarre downward spiral and eventual spiritual awakening very well. But it’s also largely interpretive, full of symbols and suggestions instead of narrative hand-holding. Only The Limits of Control is looser in terms of narrative structure throughout Jarmusch’s filmography. All of his movies are more concerned with character than plot, but few are so left to the viewer’s imagination. Don’t let that be a barrier, as you’ll miss out on an otherwise rich experience.

The great critic Roger Ebert wrote, “Jim Jarmusch is trying to get at something here, and I don't have a clue what it is” in his 1.5-star review of Dead Man in 1996. He posits whether the film is about this or that before ultimately throwing up his hands in defeat, which probably misses the beauty of the film and Jarmusch’s own exploration through it.

“You tell me what it said,” Jarmusch responds to a question during the audio Q&A in the DVD’s supplements. While this may ruffle some feathers or seem frustratingly evasive, Jarmusch generally seems to be a writer who wishes to dabble in a multitude of ideas in his films. He continued by saying that he became aware that Dead Man was operating on many different levels, being about the cycle of life, nature, the industrial revolution, violence, fame and infamy, indigenous cultures, as well as traveling and moving through various landscapes.

This lack of laser focus can be frustrating. Jarmusch could be accused of lacking clarity and simply throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall and not being judicious about which to keep. Alternately, it can seem as a film bubbling with life and uncertainty, made with feel and intuition instead of a carefully (rigidly) planned project without room to move around. Either way, it’s best if you just let the movie happen without trying too hard to figure out what every little moment means. It’s what makes it worth revisiting, and exploring its external influences could make that re-watch an even more rewarding experience.

Now…where’s my Criterion edition of Ghost Dog?


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