written in December 2012:
After watching Jim Jarmusch’s twisted, acidic Western Dead Man (1995), I abruptly ended the companionship with the friend who recommended we watch it. Our complicated relationship was fizzling even before watching Dead Man; the movie only succeeded our downfall. But after experiencing the liberation of awaking one morning next to him and realizing I no longer loved him, I was reminded of the bond between Dead Man‘s main character William Blake (Johnny Depp) and the cast of characters he meets. Just as my former companion and I sought validation from each other almost immediately, so does Blake with each character in Dead Man. And like both of us, Blake suffers the problem of seeking both permanence and stability through others, instead of cultivating an identity that is all his own. But because of his innocence, he sees his fellow characters, if anything, as merely lost souls struggling to find an identity just as much as him. Sadly, what he never conveys is if he finally understands that each character is manipulating him. With each character also seeking revenge, whether through sex or a spiritual sacrifice, or for the murder of one’s son, one never knows if he truly understands that when the multi-faceted characters eventually cast him – the innocent, gentle accountant – aside, they are finally revealing their true, imperfect colors. In a world in which we are all alone, the audience is torn: are we Blake, or are we everyone else?
Set sometime during the 1800s at the dawn of the Industrial Era, the movie opens with camera shots of a tired and nervous Blake on a rickety train. After burying his parents, he heads west from Cleveland, Ohio to the frontier town of Machine to take a job as an accountant. Already made eerie by the black-and-white cinematography, things only get eerier when Blake receives a prophetic warning from the train operator (Crispin Glover) who knows Machine. He warns Blake: avoid that place at all costs. Unfortunately, Blake ignores this advice, leaves the train at his destination and heads to company headquarters, only to learn that the position was filled because he did not respond to the letter offering him the job. After company president John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum) threatens him at gunpoint for challenging his dismissal, he leaves embarrassed, and also scared. Distraught, he heads to a raucous saloon and meets a prostitute (Mili Avital). After winding up in her room, her ex-lover Charlie (Gabriel Byrnes) appears unexpectedly, killing her. Blake, in a panic, manages to kill Charlie, also unexpectedly. Ignoring the train operator has its consequences, but it seems relying on anyone in Machine does, too.
Blake’s real problem arises when it turns out that Charlie is company president Dickinson’s son. Dickinson wants revenge and so he hires three of the nastiest hit men in the area. Alerted to this danger, Blake escapes Machine to a barren area, but even then they find Blake, shoot him, and run away. Blake regains consciousness in the middle-of-nowhere to see a crouching Native American by the name of Nobody (Gary Farmer), standing over him. Both characters – the lost, out-of-place types – form a bond, lose each other, and then meet again, all while escaping Blake’s captors. Nobody, in particular, is a jovial and gregarious character, and perhaps the best character in the movie if only because he is so unbelievable. As a symbol of supposed purity in a wild place, Nobody, we learn, was raised among, and educated by, white settlers. Of his many quirks, he mistakes Blake for the namesake English poet, whom he quotes throughout the movie. The bond between them is the tightest Blake has experienced, as it seems Nobody genuinely has a heart. Yet as we are lead to believe in this post-modern drama, nobody, indeed, has a heart.
Dead Man‘s pride, however, is not its impressively depressing tale of revenge, but its painstaking research into Native American culture and its willingness to highlight the true wildness of the West that brings its characters alive. With cannibal hit men and cross-dressing vagrants among its assorted cast, these sordid, villainous characters and redeemable heroes, shows that Jarmusch has some smarts. By playing with typical western character roles, he demystifies the romantic allure of the West, ultimately crushing the genre, and quite possibly the audience’s humanity, too. Despite its added twists of humor and rich use of symbolism, among the other aforementioned qualities, it remains yet to be seen whether or not it engages the audience in other ways, however. Dead Man is a movie that wants to evoke a feeling – pain in this case – from the audience, but its overemphasis on cinematic effects neutralizes that opportunity. Jarmusch forgets that more than simple gimmickry matters in moviemaking. For that, it deserves both the defense and ridicule it received upon its opening in 1995.
But Jarmusch’s movie could not be more isolating to both one’s senses and intellect. By over-stylizing this tale of loss and loneliness, filming it in black and white with no goal but to impress, and letting star power lead the way, the movie loses its (and thus aches for) profundity and relevance. When it has the opportunity to extend its hand to the audience, it turns away from them, instead extending its hand in talking to other Westerns, only to fling its nose up when they reply. Lost between communicating with the audience and the genre’s predecessors, the question remains: Dead Man talks, but to whom?
Even nearly ten years after its theatrical release, American audiences have remained true to the American movie-going habit: one where seeing a movie is a salvation and an escape, but also the chance to understand their current predicament. But Dead Man is different. Even as it allows one to reflect on modern-day isolation and one’s own persona, it stakes out one claim: to justify one’s bleak outlook on life. As such, Dead Man is the narcissist’s train ride to nowhere. The bleak feeling is in large part Jarmusch’s contribution, but Depp is to blame as well by tricking the audience to succumb to the bright lights of this hyper-philosophic movie. Because after watching Depp, the type of actor who garners a longing to mimic his freewheeling nature and liberating sexuality, majestically play the insecure and meek Blake, audiences will turn away, feeling disappointed about seeing Depp in this role. And they will also have validated their loneliness, willingly returning to the modern Machine: suburbia, exurbia and austerity, much like I expect my former companion did after I kicked him out for overstaying his welcome. Needless to say, we have not talked since.