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Jarmusch’s Dead Man: Deconstructing the Myth of the Classic Western

Updated on July 20, 2017
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The Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man has been described as “a disturbing, mysterious black-and-white western,” (Rosenbaum). It’s a film where the protagonist William Blake, played by Johnny Depp, spends three quarters of the film dying. It’s also a film many struggle with attempting to understand. Noted critic Roger Ebert said of his viewing, “Jim Jarmusch is trying to get at something here, and I don't have a clue what it is,” (rogerebert.com). The movie is clearly repeat viewing fare, as even critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has noted, “I've seen the film six times now, and each time it's grown in beauty, resonance, and visionary power,” (chicagoreader,com). This is reflected in the difference in the Rotten Tomatoes scores, from critics of 71% to audiences of 88%, as a regular movie viewer have the luxury of repeat viewings.

The film may seem very simple in its premise-man leaves home for a job which doesn’t exist, gets caught in an ill-fated situation, goes on the run with someone he’s just met, and dies in the end-yet there are very complex themes going on as the story unfolds. William Blake is the dead man of the title. From the beginning he’s dead spiritually; then, as a result of his night with Thel, physically. It is on his journey to final death and peace all the images of an idealized period in time fall to the bleakness of a reality almost forgotten. This makes Dead Man a commentary on the dualities of living-life/death, Christian/pagan, and technology/nature-while deconstructing the preconceived notions of them.

The film starts with the protagonist, William Blake, who after his parents have passed and his fiancée has left him, going out West for a job offer. After a bizarre train trip when the changing landscape and passengers signal the change from East to West, he arrives at his destination: the town of Machine, home of Dickinson Metalworks. Upon his arrival at the metalworks, he is informed the position has already been filled, then is chased off by the owner at gunpoint. He meets and goes home with a paper flower selling former prostitute named Thel, getting caught up in a situation between her and her ex that gets them killed and William shot. He goes on the run, and the next morning meets up with a Native American called Nobody. William is informed by the Nobody that the “white man’s metal” is too close to his heart to remove safety and asks if he “kill the white man who killed you?” When Nobody hears William’s full name, he mistakes him for the British poet Blake, and offers to take him to where “to the bridge made of waters. The mirror...where the sea meets the sky.” As luck would have it, Thel’s ex was Mr. Dickinson’s youngest son, and he enlists three hired guns to track him down, along with posting a reward to anyone else who can bring him in, dead or alive. One of the assassins, Cole Wilson kills the other two, eats one of them and proceeds alone. William is left along to go on a spirit walk, meets back up with Nobody, encounters other unsavory characters along the way and kills them and a couple of US Marshalls. By the end of the movie, Nobody had gotten them to their destination, the Pacific Ocean, where he sends William adrift. William watches as Nobody and Cole kill each other before passing away peacefully watching the sky.

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The trip William Blake makes on the train is our first view of life vs death, a theme that is interwoven into every aspect of the movie. As the scene starts, we see vast acres of lush forest. The further we travel, the destruction of the forest and those who traveled through them grows. There are scenes of abandon wagons, burned teepees and their inhabitants. The passengers on the train go from city folk with kids to trappers with rifles. The final scene on the train shows the passengers randomly shooting at buffalo, with the sole purpose of killing as many as possible merely because the government wants their population, and by default the Native American’s, reduced. “The sense of an undiscovered West — a West that vanished before it could be incorporated into national myth. That’s all there on the train ride from Cleveland to the Pacific, some time after the Civil War, as the white passengers shift inexorably into barbarism.” (Marcus) As opposed to the amazing landscape of the classic Westerns, Jarmusch’s vision of the West is empty and dying.

Machines and technology, viewed in modern life as useful, are shown to be destructive. Zack Campbell states, “One cannot overlook [the film’s] acknowledgment of environmental degradation associated with progress,” (slant.com). It is apt that the town itself is called Machine. Dickinson Metalworks is truly the centerpiece and the reason for the existence of this town. Almost everyone in the factory is nameless and forgettable. The entire town is covered in the bones of dead animals. The only other businesses we see upon Blake’s arrival is a men making coffins and the other skinning and tanning animal hides. The saloon, a lively place in old Westerns, is depressing, with its somber patrons and gloomy music. So much so, Blake goes outside to drink his bottle of booze. The industrialization of the West portrayed in the film as soul sucking.

When discussing technology and the Western, guns are a central part of the discussion. This is yet another destructive force in the film. They are used to senselessly kill the buffalo from the train. Blake is threatened twice by them upon him arrival. It is by a gun that his fate is sealed, both from the bullet from Charlie’s gun and using Thel’s to end Charlie’s life. Once the movie moves from the town and out into the wilderness, almost every person seen within it is killed by a firearm: the three bounty hunters, Nobody, the marshals, the trappers, and the missionary outpost workers. William even comes across a fawn that the random victim of the all the gunplay, echoing the devastating nature of technology set loose and unrestrained in nature.

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The train Fireman asks Blake “why you've come all the way out here... all the way out here to Hell,” and refers to the town as the end of the line. Griel Marcus describes William’s arrival as, “he heads into the accursed little Northwest town to work at what almost smells off the screen as a tannery, you realize you are now seeing the dark satanic mills, and that it’s no big deal.” (salon.com). His journey through the wilderness thus becomes his trial, or spirit walk, to obtain enlightenment before passing from one realm to the next. The end, when he is in the canoe on the water looking at the sky, is his Heaven. He is at peace and ready to move on to the next world. Blake could be seen as making his trip to Hell as a necessary journey to earn his right to enter Heaven.

The Native American Nobody is not perfect, but he is the most noble of all the people William encounters. He helps William, despite his hatred of the white man. He is in touch with his spirituality. For the most part, he practices what he preaches. In contrast, the missionary is prejudicial, greedy and murderous, as seen when he tries to kill Blake to collect the reward. He is everything Christianity is not professed to be. Nobody says it best when, quoting the 19th Century poet Blake’s “The Everlasting Gospel,” “The vision of Christ that thou dost see...is my vision's greatest enemy.” The white man as villain is contrary to the vision of the traditional Western. In them, a character like Cole, a cold-blooded murderer and cannibal, would have been portrayed as a Native American.

Ansen says it all when he stated, “Though no one but Jim Jarmusch could have made Dead Man, no one could have expected this film,“ (newsweek.com). It’s a film in which its themes are so powerfully portrayed, “might as well be a silent. You can read the whole film off its faces.” (Marcus). The movie, the true definition of the Acid Western, lays bare the deconstruction of the classic Western tropes of what life, death, the European settler, Christianity, Native American and their religion, turning them on their head in a way not seen before. Jarmusch presents a celluloid vision of “a world of danger and decay rather than promise and freedom… American West was indeed vital, but was a place of death rather than growth” (slant.com).

Works Cited

Ansen, David. "Dead Man." Newsweek 3 June 1996: 75. Fine Arts and Music Collection. Web. 10 July 2017.

Campbell, Zack . "Dead Man." Slant.com. Slant Magazine, 25 May 2004. Web. 10 July 2017.

Dead Man. Dir. Jim Jarmusch. Perf. Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Michael Wincott, Lance Henriksen, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum. Miramax, 1995. DVD.

"Dead Man (1995)." Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango, 2017. Web. 6 July 2017.

Ebert, Roger. "Dead Man Movie Review & Film Summary (1996)." RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital LLC, 28 June 1996. Web. 9 July 2017.

Marcus, Greil. " Dead again." Salon. Salon Media Group, 2 Dec. 1999. Web. 6 July 2017.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Acid Western." ChcagoReader.com. Sun-Times Media, LLC, 27 June 1996. Web. 9 July 2017.

© 2017 Kristen Willms

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    • kwillms211 profile image
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      Kristen Willms 2 months ago from Florida

      I didn't come to appreciate the beauty of this film until I watched a second time. I feel most people are not prepared for what this movie is, but it is truly an amazing work.

      Also, I watched an interview from Jim Jarmusch about the film, and he spoke about Johnny Depp's performance. He said that Depp was able to give a fluid, cohesive performance while having the scenes shot out of order. He felt that it was the ultimate testament of that performance.

    • Fullerman5000 profile image

      Ryan Fuller 2 months ago from Louisiana, USA

      I have to admit, I had to give this movie a couple of tries. I am a huge Depp fan, but this was a movie that was definitely one of his less popular ones. However, when I finally finished it, I enjoyed it and realized how truly deep this performance was and what it meant. I believe Depp said this is one of his favorite and most meaningful roles he has done on film.