Film: Dead Man
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
I imagine that one of the great perks of being a respected artsy director is that you can get great people for itty bitty roles. Take, for example, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Much of the cast beyond its main stars reads like an entry off a Who’s Who page. Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton, even weird ol’ Crispin Glover…most of whom have about five minutes of screen time. There’s got to be a real sense of satisfaction knowing that you can fill a small but critical role with essentially anyone you want for the part.
Dead Man has been dubbed an “acid Western,” combining the extravagance of the traditional spaghetti Western, the symbolism of classics, and the sensibilities of the counter-culture. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that it’s something to behold. It’s as divergent from the standard horse and six-gun picture as anything I’ve seen in the last year. In fact, had you asked me as recently as a week ago what Western I would call my favorite, I would have likely named films like Unforgiven and The Searchers. They’re still in the mix, certainly, but now, so is Dead Man.
Let’s take care of the plot quickly so that we can get to the fun stuff. A bespectacled accountant named William Blake (Johnny Depp) spends his life savings to travel from Cleveland to the town of Machine where he has been promised a job in the factory owned by a man named Dickinson (Robert Mitchum). However, once he gets to Machine, he discovers that the job has been filled, and Dickinson threatens him with a shotgun. Blake leaves and is taken in by Thel (Mili Avital), a former prostitute. Sadly, the arrival of Thel’s former lover Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) results in the deaths of both Charlie and Thel. Blake runs, not knowing that Charlie was the son of Dickinson, who has the money to cause Blake some real trouble.
In the exchange of gunfire with Charlie, Blake is injured, and now has a bullet lodged near his heart. He is discovered by a native named Nobody (Gary Farmer), who believes that Blake is the reincarnation of the poet William Blake. It is Nobody’s belief that this current Blake will create a different kind of poetry—one made of the blood of white men. This will be important, because Dickinson has put out a large bounty on Blake’s head and has sent three rabid killers after him. Of these, Johnny “The Kid” Pickett (Eugene Byrd) is the youngest and angriest, Conway Twill (Michael Wincott) is the most talkative, and Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen) is the most terrifying. In fact, only Wilson will make the full journey. A known cannibal, he kills the others, and eats one of them.
What we get here is a very simple story told in a complex narrative. A man runs from a crime he committed out of self preservation and is forced to adapt to his new world and reality in order to survive as best he can, knowing that the wound he has sustained will kill him eventually. It is, therefore, not a quest for survival, but a quest for purpose and meaning before the inevitable end of his life.
And there are plenty of treasures on the way there. John Hurt appears for a few minutes as the assistant to the violent Dickinson. Alfred Molina appears at the end of the film as a racist trader. Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton show up in between as two thirds of a group of insane trappers bent on doing something really not good to poor William Blake. Thornton is recognizable only from his voice, and Iggy Pop is certainly easy to spot despite the fact that he wears a dress and a bonnet. But the cameos do work because they are smart, and because they don’t really detract from anything on the screen. And, fortunately, the film really rests in the hands of Depp, Henriksen, and especially Gary Farmer, who is without question the best thing in the film—and for a film this good, that’s high praise.
What strikes me about this film as opposed to most other Westerns is the care with which the Native American question is addressed. In the early days of film, Native Americans were little more than savages frequently depicted as subhuman. As we moved into the more politically correct, enlightened, and white guilt-laden 90s, Native Americans became the complete opposite. They became magical beings of intense and deep wisdom, a noble race of people who lived in peace and harmony with the world until the balance was tipped by the marauding Europeans.
Dead Man does neither of these two things. It instead attempts to portray Nobody as a real person—neither a ridiculous savage nor an all-knowing font of spiritual and universal wisdom. Nobody’s past is filled with racism; he was captured and caged by English trappers, but was also pushed out of tribal society since his parents were from opposing tribes. While certainly knowledgeable and educated, Nobody’s wisdom is the wisdom of his own people and does not touch on the reality (really) of Blake’s world. In short, he’s a real person in a real world. He has a set of skills and a world of things that he does not understand.
All of this is greatly assisted by two tremendous artistic choices. First, Jarmusch shot the film in a rich, vibrant black and white, giving the film an older visual feel. The film truly loses nothing by not being in color, and gains a level of natural credibility for a Western. Second, the film was scored by Neil Young, who manages (as he frequently does) to blend both the modern, electronic age with the feel of the past and the prairie. Young’s music often evokes the feeling of anachronism, of ancient words and ideas in a modern context. Dead Man does the reverse, putting a modern story of spiritual survival and vision into the framework of the past. These two things juxtapose brilliantly.
Suffice to say that Dead Man now ranks as one of my favorite Westerns. This is a film I will watch again, and will likely enjoy more the next time through.
Why to watch Dead Man: A modern spiritual quest in old trappings.
Why not to watch: Cameo roles often leave me wanting more, with the exception of Crispin Glover.