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Pulling Focus: Dead Man (1995)

20 November 2016 | Features, Reviews | by Shane Scott-Travis


“[Dead Man] is the Western Andrei Tarkovsky wanted to make.”

– J. Hoberman


The Place of Dead Roads

Ohio-born Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch refurbishes the black-and-white Western the way a 19th century Native American might see it––as a murderous and genocidal head trip heralding the deadly homecoming of capitalism. Woven into the light threads of this gossamer nightmare is a warm and rewarding friendship between one William Blake (Johnny Depp), a wavering, dying accountant from Cleveland, and Nobody (Gary Farmer), an outcast Indian.

Their visionary voyage into the American north-west uses Jarmusch’s signature minimalist and informed style in a film that most likely couldn’t exist in a post-Blood Meridian, post-Place of Dead Roads universe (hyper-stylized and literate Revisionist Western novels of great weight, by Cormac McCarthy and William S. Burroughs, respectively). Perhaps the darkest, most shocking film in Jarmusch’s considerable oeuvre, Dead Man is also his most far-reaching and confrontational.

“Jarmusch has long made a specialty of seeing the United States through the eyes of outsiders: immigrants and tourists whose perspectives grant a new window onto America. It’s central to the politics of Dead Man that the designated role of the foreigner is filled by a Native American, a sardonic comment on the fate of the land’s original people in both history and movie mythology.”

– Dennis Lim, The Los Angeles Times


Rage against the machine


Depp’s William Blake sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb in his plaid suit and dorky Poindexter glasses. Timid, hilariously cosmopolitan, and hyper-civilized to a fault, we first meet the mid-western accountant William on a train journey that feels endless.

Rather reluctantly William finds himself lost and at odds in a strange conversation with the train’s soot-covered fireman (Crispin Glover) and it’s through this discourse and the barbaric behavior of the other passengers––the begin firing out the windows of the train at a grazing herd of buffalo––that this is something like a funerary procession or an elevator to hell careening William towards the frontier town of Machine.

Once in Machine, William’s luck doesn’t improve, it gets worse and that sinking feel is palpable as disorientation and unfriendliness seeps in. It’s not just Neil Young’s dissonant caterwaul guitar score that unnerves and perturbs.

William witnesses a succinct yet agitated series of tableaus including a braying horse pissing in the street, and a threatening-looking man (Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers fame) receiving a blowjob from a prostitute, who locks eyes with William and draws his pistol upon him. These brief but bombastic spectacles lead William to the metal works and the reason he’s made this western migration, for he was promised an accounting position.

It’s soon revealed via the company’s combative proprietor John Dickinson (played by a wonderful Robert Mitchum in his final film role before his death in 1997) that William’s position was filled months ago. And to get William out the door with alacrity, John fiercely points a double-gauge shotgun into his face as a fuck you.

Down in the mouth William makes his way to a saloon to spend his last little bit of dough on a flask of whiskey. At long last but only fleetingly William’s luck seems to favor him when he meets the lovely Thel Russell (Mili Avital), a former prostitute selling artisanal paper flowers at the saloon.

Thel, it’s worth noting, is named for “The Book of Thel”––a 1789 poem by Blake. In short order the two fall into bed together but their passion is transitory as they are interrupted by Thel’s ex-fiancé, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne). Enraged and way out of line, Charlie fatally shoots Thel, severely wounds William, and is shot dead by William in return.

“As a tale of innocence lost, Dead Man is the indie flipside of The Birth Of A Nation (1915), stripping away D. W. Griffith’s racist triumphalism to reveal a wilder, weirder and altogether more spiritual side to America’s national identity. Here Jarmusch shows his unconventional way around the edges of genre cinema… …and the result is a low-key classic of strangely poetic beauty––a western for sleepwalkers and dreamers.”

– Anton Bitel, Eye for Film


Every night and every morn, some to misery are born


After the tragic deaths of Thel and Charlie, William flees with haste, stealing Charlie’s pinto, which he can barely ride, thus beginning an odyssey through the wilderness of the American West. By the early dawn William meets the enigmatic Indian named Nobody (Farmer) who right away recognizes William’s severe injury and the bullet close to his heart.

Nobody eschews the archetypal and frankly racist stereotype of Noble Savage as we get to know this unconventional outsider. An outcast amongst the Blackfoot people (his father was Blackfoot, his mother Blood), Nobody was primarily raised by whites who abducted him at a young age, and later when he tried to return to his people he was given the derisive moniker “Exaybachay” which means “He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing”.

Bit by bit suffering from his untreated bullet wound which, as Nobody rightly suspects, is fatally too close to his ticker, William steers toward his death. Believing William to somehow be the reincarnation of his namesake the seminal English poet and painter of the Romantic era, Nobody becomes William’s guide, well aware that this charge will include seeing his guarded entry into the spirit world.

“Do you know how to use that weapon?” Nobody asks William, referring to his gun. “It will replace your tongue. You will learn to speak through it. And your poetry will now be written with blood.”

“I’m not dead. Am I?”

– William Blake (played by Johnny Depp)


Stupid fucking white man


Unbeknownst to William and Nobody, Charlie, the man William shot and killed in self-defense, was the son of John Dickinson––the shotgun wielding, cigar chomping industrialist son of a bitch.

Dickinson, extra annoyed with William for stealing his son’s horse like a “up yours” gesture, brings in three badass bounty hunters––Johnny “The Kid” Pickett (Eugene Byrd), Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), and Conway Twill (Michael Wincott)––to bring William in. Dead or alive, it makes no difference to Dickinson, who also puts a sizeable bounty on William, guaranteeing a large manhunt for our forlorn standard-bearer.

The bounty hunter posse under Dickinson’s employ have an infamous prestige about them; The Kid is a cocky, cold-blooded killer, Twill has a fearsome reputation and a motormouth, but most notorious amongst them is Wilson. Wilson, Twill warns the Kid, is dangerously bonkers. Not only has this nutjob “fucked his parents”, “both of ‘em”, he “killed them”, “fucked them again”, and then the coup de grâce, “he ate them”.

“You were a poet and a painter, William Blake. But now, you’re a killer of white men.”

– Nobody (played by Gary Farmer)


Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead


A pensive and at times almost surreal dissertation on contemplation, Dead Man beguiles and charms through Robby Müller’s richly modulated and lush black-and-white lensing (Müller’s monochrome cinematography owes much to the late landscape photographer Ansel Adams) which is exquisitely accompanied by Young’s simple yet obsessive guitar score.

Also deserving praise is Depp’s gentle and fine-grained performance, wonderfully embodied in the memorable daydream-like sequence when he huddles down next to a departed fawn. Similarly, Farmer brings much nuance and loving guile to Nobody and, as Jarmusch fans are well aware, he would reprise his role in an amiable cameo in Jarmusch’s next film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999).

Although much of the cast have mentioned here already, Dead Man offers a wealth of surprising cameos and support roles from the likes of John Hurt, Alfred Molina, Iggy Pop, and Billy Bob Thornton, in a seemingly endless barrage of frontier chicanery and sharp-practice.


It is preferable not to travel with a dead man


Early in the film, when William is with Thel and it almost feels like the film could take a different trajectory into more tender and quixotic tracts, the two share a very revealing moment that seems to rear close to the crux of Dead Man. William asks Thel why it is that she’s carrying a loaded pistol and she answers back: “‘Cause this is America.”

Death comes swift and sudden for some of the characters in the film, and a great deal of the narrative and the ferocity therein is unpalatable, unromantic, and unheroic. Violent acts of murder are awkward, messy, and rough.

“In Dead Man [the use of violence is] not that unrealistic, because boom!––gun goes off and guys get hit with metal and fall down like puppets with strings getting cut––which is kind of what we wanted it to feel like. Shocking for a brief moment and then very still. Someone’s soul got taken.”

– Jim Jarmusch


Some are born to Sweet Delight, some are born to Endless Night


The great Western chasm, the vast emptiness and the overspread silences permeate Dead Man, accompanying William and Nobody through the forests, through to the threatening trading post, and to the denotative icy waters of the river that brings the pair to the Makah village. Nobody may well be something of a Virgil to William’s Dante but when they are given brief asylum by the Makah tribe it has more to do with Nobody securing a sanctified canoe for a boat grave.

It’s refreshing too that Nobody, the rites and rituals he performs and his exchanges with other natives is never fully comprehensible for William or for us. Jarmusch deliberately eschews the use of subtitles or translations so that the conversations carried out in Blackfoot and Cree language are there entirely for members of those nations. This includes in-jokes and intimations directed solely for Native American audiences. Respect.

As Dead Man approaches the adjournment we find William in the spirit-canoe, Nobody at his side to launch him off, and a final mythic visage as the vessel glides far afield. A death trip tenor with an Arthurian undercurrent, and a welcoming return to conception.

Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.




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  • D Train

    One of Jarmusch’s very best works.

  • V.C. Privitera

    Shane Scott-Travis:
    Normally, at least since “Taste of Cinema” has been showcasing or paying tribute of sorts to “Individual Film’s” on here…..while I’m not here to piss & moan about that, cause I respect this SITE too much for which if has offered and continues to offer in terms of Cinematic Recommendations that NO OTHER Film Site comes even near to deliver on any level of any kind or sort!

    So, now that I’ve just given my Complimentary “Kissing Ass” Speech:)

    I’d like to put our Focus on what’s brought us here, or myself I should say:
    “Dead Man”
    I’d like to 1st start off by giving a bit of a (BREIF) background to my Jim Jarmusch school of knowledge, as I feel it’ll help explain further why I’m about to say is gonna resonate much clearer for you, the author of this article:)
    While, yes, I’m well knee-deep into the entirety of Jarmusch Cinema and I surprise most by calling “Permanent Vacation” my Personal Favorite of his….but obviously “Down By Law” is one of the very few films ever to actually make anybody utter the words “Scorsese is an Amateur”….
    Don’t ever say that I said that though, cause I am Sicilian and it is Sac-Religious to even ponder that thought:)
    Anyways, I watched “Dead Man” I would say a little over 12yrs or so ago, randomly finding the DVD at Target and while NEVER even knowing or hearing about it, of course I knew of the Man: Johnny Depp……..and whatever your feelings are for whatever he’s done in his career, no matter how you feel after I tell this very detail of personal belief:
    “FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS” (…can’t mention without acknowledging “Where The Buffalo Roam”), but “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, has, and will ALWAYS be my ABSOLUTE PERSONAL NUMBER 1 FAVORITE FILM OF ALL OF CINEMA!!!!!
    You know how people play those “Beach Island” games to kill time, like what would be your top 5 films to have with you……
    HA!!! Motherfucker….I just need one and that’s “FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS”
    Anyways, hahahaha, sorry, once I get started on my maddening love-affair for that flick, it’s like asking a Preacher the Meaning of the Bible or some shit!
    So, I tell you all this, cause at the time, sure, I’d been a Depp fan and I even remember trying to find practically anything he was in just cause I was a fan and sure there were some I dug and some I didn’t care for, but that’s neither here nor there or who gives a shit…….NO ACTOR in HISTORY WILL EVER DELIVER EVERYTHING YOU WANT PERSONALLY JUST FOR YOU & YOURSELF, so either get the fuck over that notion or be a disappointed dunskie the rest of your dying days:)

    “Dead Man” had everything that looked and seemed like this would deliver and offer exactly what I’d want; great reviews, nothing remotely negative said about it on the DVD box or even online, and obviously, I’ll admit seeing the Soundtrack had been by the man himself: Neil Young………WOW!
    How could this go wrong!

    Oh, and the fact I live and have lived in Arizona for going on 10 years now, but knowing the film’s backdrop had intertwined with the very place I call home now………not to mention that I already Watched and LOVED another early Johnny Depp film called “Arizona Dream”
    I’m about to have one hell of a Viewing to Remember and Indulge my Senses into!

    So, as I set my night up for a good viewing….get the necessaries out and ready, cause in my humble opinion, nothing is worth watching a Film that you’re Ready & Wanting to Watch without properly having the supplies set in stone so when the film starts, there’s no need to pause or take a break….I’m just talking the norm’: Vino, Ganja, and I can’t recall, but Absinthe could’ve been involved, cause I was and still very much a connoisseur of the Spirit, but being that it had just been made Legal here in the States, it was apart of my nightly artistic indulgence of sorts:)

    The Film starts and I want to be absolutely and truthfully honest to you about what I’m about to say, cause after I say what I’m about to spew, you’ll probably either throw your lap-top & scream “BLASPHEMY” or just punch a hole into your wall and YELL “CUNT” at the top of your lungs……and I don’t want either of that, so that’s why I’m warning you first:)
    Let’s just say, I hated every single secondo of this film, EVERYTHING!!!!
    I wanted to honestly go outside, pour lighter-fluid on it and piss on its ashes for being such a waste of my time!!!
    I felt Violated, just as you feel right this very moment reading such words from this asshole whose telling you this long tale of tales about a FILM REVISION you had written, BUT, the story is FAR FROM OVER and I PROMISE YOU: Upon it’s Conclusion, you’ll either Thank Me for a Laugh, but also taking the time to tell you in such details my very experiences with this film in full, as I’ve done with NO ONE ELSE, not on here, and I don’t fucking care too anywhere else, even if it’s about “FEAR & LOATHING….” cause I can get my kicks as I still do from just watching that film like the BEAST it is!

    Couple Years role by, I was working at “Whole Foods” at this time and I remember there was this one cat that would always just bate (not DEBATE) but BATE me into these ridiculous conversations on films that he just wanted to either bitch or bitch at me about…….whatever……
    but I remember the very day and moment he came up to me with a grin and said “I now know a Film we can both appreciate and agree on: “Dead Man”
    And I shocked his world by basically him a response that I knew he never intended nor expected, cause it should & would’ve been the film to choose to think a guy of my tastes would enjoy or like, but I told him, just I like I say to you here and now my whole experience and even he was shocked!

    Another couple years go by……NOW, I’ve finally indulged myself into the Jim Jarmusch realm of Cinema and obviously I enjoyed his works, but I also knew that I had to owe it to myself and Jarmusch, shit even Johnny Depp to just get it over with and finally give “Dead Man” the proper viewing it deserves……I seriously was so miserable just leading up to put this thing in the DVD player and press play….I could careless by this point to waste any Wine or Weed on the next however long the film is, cause I already depressed myself enough before to know it’d be just a waste……hahahahahahaha!

    I, (V.C. Privitera), Humbly state that this film is one of the greatest underrated and unappreciated masterpieces of Cinema I’ve ever had the opportunity to not only be blessed with a 2nd-Change Viewing, but WOW!
    It struck my soul and spirit so hard and badly that by the end I was in fetal position in a ball of my own tears as I just fully comprehended the whole realm of honesty & meaning of LIFE EVERYTHING it stands for……..
    all from a “semi-satirical western comedy”
    I mean, this film isn’t like Perfection or anything, nor meant to be, but if you don’t feel something as Depp’s Character is led through the village and ultimately prepared for his voyage off into either his next life or the unknown….
    Then, seriously go yourself a favor and stay the fuck off a site like this or any site of the same and keep watching the same mindless bullshit that offers you nothing more than a waste of 2-3hrs, instead of embracing a Film that can penetrate your Heart & Soul and while the finale is Sad, it’s still Full of Inspiration and Optimism!
    That to me, is what and why Cinema itself is important and I’m grateful to have experienced this road of roads to get to the point I did with this individual film, cause all I can do is Laugh at Myself now for completely ignoring everything this Fine Piece of Work has to Offer….
    So, that’s it my friend, that’s my story;
    I’ve either exhausted you with a boring tale of response or I’ve both entertained and made you feel appreciative as I am for having such an experience as I’ve had expressed.
    So, I Fare Thee Well….and Keep On Writing Man, cause the MORE THE MERRIER, I SAY, but obviously, Let’s leave the Garbage to the Garbage Men (which you are not!)
    Thank You,
    V.C. Privitera

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