Once upon a time, not so many moons ago, there traveled across the far West—over mountain, desert and forest to the great Pacific Ocean—a wild caravan of very diverse peoples. Their leader, a tall, confusable man with white hair atop his scalp in a furrow of weedlike plumage, was of the city in every way, a thoroughly urban and urbane sort. Why would such a motley crew of surfers, bikers, hip-hop kids, rodeo riders, cowboys, European college students and a bizarrely mismatched bunch of actors follow someone so out of his element, so deeply into the elements themselves? They all had a story to tell—about a dead man’s journey to the other side of life while guided by a slightly mad native named Nobody—and the man who would tell that tale is Jim Jarmusch.
Unlike many filmmakers, when Jarmusch tells a story, he’s not as concerned with narrative issues; his sense of story is more ephemeral, ambiguous and experiential. “As a writer, I’m not so much story-oriented as character-oriented,” he explains. This modus operandi has been evident in his work since the minimalist deadpan slab of New York eccentricity, Stranger Than Paradise. When the film walked off with the prestigious Camera d’Or for Best Director at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, it kicked open the doors for idiosyncratic small-budget films. It’s not easy to understand his intentions for making that groundbreaking film, nor his successive efforts, Down by Law, Mystery Train and Night on Earth. As he admits, “I don’t look back; I don’t look at my films once they’re done. I don’t analyze myself, and I’m not a very ambitious or calculating person.” In fact, the greatest amount of retrospection he offers is: “We were lucky to make that film [Stranger] at that time, pretty much by accident. We thought it would be a film we would like and no one else would ever see.”
When Jarmusch recalls how the success of Stranger was “the start for me to realize that I could possibly make films rather than have another job,” what he omits is that in some significant way that bit of luck had a similar effect on many people. But that lesson even as it still holds true for his most ambitious venture to date, Dead Man—had already been learned by a generation of artists who emerged from the nihilist rubble of punk rock. Jarmusch’s association with punk—not only did much of his early stable of actors come from that scene, but he was in a popular downtown band at the time (he doesn’t want their name printed, saying, “Then people want to find the record, and it’s embarrassing”)—is as much a shared attitude as it is an aesthetic affinity. “What I loved about that period was the death of virtuosity,” he explains. “It was the idea that expressing something was more important than having to know what you were doing.” If Dead Man is simply too beautiful a film to regard in such terms, it does continue this remarkable artist’s penchant for dismantling the larger-than-life mythologies purveyed by the big screen.
Jarmusch’s aversion to epic, seamless, seductive, fictions of Hollywood movies makes the navigation of meaning in Dead Man a gradually unfolding, almost trancelike experience. The subtle, silent opening sequence, in which the central character, William Blake (played by Johnny Depp), sits passively on a train as distance and time are marked by the shifting population of his fellow passengers—from the cultured sophistication of the East to the scruffy, frontier wildness of the West—sets the momentum and direction of this tale: a descent into the deepest margins of 19th-century American society. Depp, an unsuspecting innocent, is carried away by events in a foreshortened cycle of life and death that is ultimately transcendent. It is an utterly Jarmuschian inversion.
“I’m not a big fan of the western, though I do like the more peripheral, less traditional ones, like Peckinpah and Leone,” he explains. “I don’t like John Ford characters, and the sight of John Wayne makes me want to puke. Ford idealizes his characters, and John Wayne always represented something other than just a guy. I don’t like the western convention of the stranger coming into some bad town, cleaning it up and walking off into the sunset.” Rather than the usual conquest of civilization over the savage, Dead Man posits a converse reality: the white man from the East is taken into the spiritual heart of the native.
The story is driven by the extreme personalities of a remarkable cast: actors like Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris and Alfred Molina, who exert a raw and violent nature that is in direct opposition to the poetic and personal performance of Gary Farmer, as the Indian named Nobody. “He’s an aboriginal character that’s very complicated, human, neurotic and has one foot in each canoe, culturally,” says Jarmusch. Inside this deceptively simple story, Jarmusch uses the western as a frame in which to address a variety of themes, including, as he suggests, “violence, America as a place, industrialization, the cultural clash between the native people and the white European influx that committed a genocide on the scale of some 25 million people, spirituality and the idea of fame and how things are put on you that are not part of your character.”
In scenes marked by Jarmusch’s uncanny knack for extending the camera’s gaze beyond the fast-action edit into a more mesmerizing, meditational sense of time, the director found Depp to be “very subtle as an actor. It’s a very hard role to play—a passive rather than an active character.” The part was written expressly for Depp, and Jarmusch confesses that without him or Gary Farmer, “I probably wouldn’t have made the film.” Explaining this opaque yet resonant part, Jarmusch says, “Why I like Johnny so much as this character is that he starts off being such an innocent. He’s just so clean at the beginning that you want to graffiti all over him.” And that’s precisely what happens: “Robert Mitchum brands him with this identity of being an outlaw and a killer, which is totally contrary to his own nature, and Nobody thinks he’s William Blake, the English poet, somehow displaced and needing to return to the spirit world.” As much as the meat of the movie is precisely about how Nobody prepares and delivers the Blake “dead man” to that other side of life, this confusion of identity assumes slyly comic proportions when one considers the extent to which Depp himself has been subjected to perpetual media misrepresentations as an unruly bad boy.
With Johnny Depp as its star, you would think that Dead Man is a movie about him. But somehow it really isn’t. Ultimately, this is a film dedicated to wisdom, magic and an understanding of the American Indians and their deep relationship to the land, a nature that Jarmusch, aided by Robby Maller’s hallucinatory black-and-white cinematography, finds “really chaotic, wild and cruel—very strong force we take for granted.”
The submission of Blake’s persona to the profound poetics of Nobody’s mystical vision—and the sense that this isn’t a movie about white men out West as it is about the great societies from whom this land was stolen—is just part of what makes Dead Man such a challenging film. Jarmusch may have set the stage for the rise of independent film in America, but as that world has been entirely co-opted by the film industry in the past decade, his unrelenting position as one of the last true auteurs of contemporary cinema is dangerously fragile. With an enrapturing score by Neil Young, which he created as a purely emotional and abstract response by playing straight through the film without interruption, and Jarmusch’s unerring insistence on maintaining absolute artistic control—including owning all his own copyrights and negatives, making the movie in black and white, writing a script that’s alternatively barren and allegorically mystical and editing it in such a way that each shot opens up and extends well beyond the standard confines of action—one has to wonder if his staunch dedication to the creative integrity of avant-garde expression may be too incompatible with the demands of the marketplace.
I love this film, but I had to ask Jarmusch if deep down he didn’t wish that he was capable of compromising his vision to satisfy the powers that be. “No, I’m happy just to be on the periphery of things,” he replies. “I don’t think I could work any other way because life’s too short, and I’m lazy enough as it is. I’d rather hang out with my friends than fight against people butchering something that came out of my soul.”