What’s in the name? Not that much, usually! Unless you’re William Blake, the main character of art-house director Jim Jarmusch’s oh-so-cool and freaky new western, Dead Man. And not a visionary English poet but a naive young 19th-century accountant from Cleveland on your way to take a job in the frontier town of Machine.
As embodied by Johnny Depp, Blake is a clueless city slicker in a truly offensive suit, a doe-eyed innocent with “crucify me” written all over his back (figuratively speaking, of course). By the time he reaches Machine, a hell hole full of dark, Satanic mills where the locals sell bones in the street, his employment opportunities have already evaporated.
Penniless and stranded, Blake falls in with former town whore Thel (Mili Avital), whose jealous ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne) just happens to be the son of his prospective employer, steelworks owner John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum). Soon enough, an altercation leaves Thel and her ex both dead, and Blake on the run with a bullet lodged next to his heart. Blake becomes an instantly notorious outlaw who spends the next two hours playing out the longest death scene since D.O.A.
Along the way, Blake meets Nobody (Gary Farmer), a solitary mixed-blood Native who was stolen and re-educated by British soldiers, thus familiarizing him with the poetry of the other William Blake. Choosing to believe Blake is the reincarnation of his literary namesake, Nobody warns him that whatever writing he does now will be “in the blood of dead white men.” Several corpses later Blake is close enough to the other side to start believing his own press. “Yes, I’m William Blake,” he eventually tells a luckless pair of U.S. marshals who think they’ve got the drop on him, before shooting them both. “Do you know my poetry?”
By turns revisionist and redemptive, the surrealistic Dead Man moves with a slow, strange dignity. And the audience is invited along on every step of Depp’s journey toward the acceptance of his own mortality.
It’s pretty damn funny at times, too.
“Dead Man is a movie with a lot of surprises in it for people, if they’re willing to accept them,” says Jarmusch, in his usual deadpan drawl on a line from NYC. “If you’ve read Blake, maybe you’ll know enough to recognize that all the ‘Indian-like’ stuff Nobody spouts is made up of quotes from his poems and proverbs, or that John Hurt’s character is named after a real-life guy who sued Blake for sedition. Or maybe you don’t know anything about Blake, but it won’t make any difference—what you don’t already know, you’ll learn.”
Comments Farmer, “For myself, I was really surprised that non-Native audiences could get as much out of it as they seem to be getting. But it just goes to show there’s a crosspoint of wisdom that everyone can tap into if they try, no matter what culture they come from! Though the moral of the story does seem to be that most white people have to already be dying before they can figure that out.”
As befits Jarmusch, the same guy who brought us such minimalist classics as Down By Law and Night On Earth, Dead Man quickly evolves into a Rorschach blot in which the usual conventions of the western genre—cowboys, Indians, posses, dancehall girls—are open to interpretation. In one black scene, Depp encounters a trio of trappers (screenwriter/actor Billy Bob Thornton, rock idol Iggy Pop, wearing a dress, and Jared Harris) who act like they just escaped from the Kids In The Hall version of Deliverance. Meanwhile, a subplot has him pursued by three hired killers (Eugene Byrd, Lance Henriksen and the man with the running monologue, Michael Wincott), one of whom turns out to be a cannibalistic demon.
“I wrote the parts of Bill Blake and Nobody specifically for Johnny and Gary,” says Jarmusch. “The rest of the characters were all cast after the fact, and it still amazes me how many cool people were willing to take tiny little parts just to get in on this project. Working with Mitchum, for example, was amazing—but kind of intimidating, too, because he never improvises.
“Which was the exact opposite of people like Iggy, who rewrote everything I gave them. I mean, we needed a particularly lurid passage from the Bible, so Iggy took off with a copy, and 10 minutes later he comes back with this crazy rant about killing Philistines: ‘I will smite thee, and I will take thy head from thee!’ He knew exactly what I was looking for.”
According to Farmer, the underlying themes of Dead Man remain closer to everyone’s hearts than many audience members might like to think.
“Even a hundred years ago, “he observes, “we didn’t worry so much about our own deaths as we do now. We didn’t cut ourselves off from the process by constantly trying to convince ourselves it was never going to happen to us. But the fact still is, you wake up every day, and you’re dying. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a bullet next to your heart—death is a companion we’re all going to have to travel with.”
The familiarity of that observation coupled with the film’s calculated inconclusiveness is sure to leave some people flabbbergasted—more even than Neil Young’s score, which features one electric guitar lick infinitely repeated, like a mantra.
They’re waiting for it to try and sell them something,” Farmer observes, dryly. “And it never does.”
Says Jarmusch, “People have this ingrained set of expectations, and Dead Man thwarts them at every turn. They want a ‘happy ending.’ But to me, even if Bill did initially get his job, lived to be 80 years old in the town of Machine and ended up dying in his sleep, his life would be less rich than the truncated version we see here.”
So in a way, everything does work out for the best.
Jarmusch smiles. “Yeah, Bill gets where he’s going. He dies well.”