The accountant sits in the train and slips in and out of consciousness as the American countryside rushes in and out of focus, racing itself further and further into the past. The forests give way to plains and the plains to deserts as the skeletal wheel-spokes of covered wagons meld into the desiccated carcasses of abandoned tipis. Likewise his sleeping transforms the people: the prim and perfumed businessmen of the East melt into the soot-stained trappers of the prairie, and by the time the accountant arrives at the town of Machine at the end of the line there will be nothing but gunslingers, prostitutes, and Indians. He awakens one last time as hunters open their windows and fire at buffalo as the train fireman approaches and speaks riddles of hell, a journey, and a boat. The accountant flinches in confusion as the train continues its last leg towards his destination, his doom, his death. For accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) is a dead man whom no god nor spirit nor scripture can save.
These are the visual epigraphs that mark the beginning of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) if not the best American Western of the 1990s, then certainly the most original and unusual, a hallucinogenic pastiche of classic genre tropes, British Romantic poetry, and Native American religion. Jarmusch’s films have always reveled in the open cross-fertilization of cultures, from blues-loving Japanese tourists lost in the midnight Memphis of Mystery Train (1989) to the country music singing Iranian housewives of Paterson (2016). But Dead Man sees Jarmusch turn to the central creation myth of his own country—the Taming of the West—and devolve it down to a primordial state. Much as the opening scenes chart the backwards procession of civilization as Blake’s train plunges further westward, his journey upon reaching Machine represents a great unmaking of civilization, civility, and finally consciousness itself.
The story begins as the effete Blake arrives in the industrial hellhole of Machine to take on an accounting job at the local metal works. But he’s informed by the factory’s chuckling business manager John Scholfield and its imperious, shotgun-toting owner John Dickinson (John Hurt and Robert Mitchum in two of the film’s abundant and unexpected cameos) that he’s too late, the position has been filled. Having spent his life savings to buy a ticket to Machine, Blake embarks on a drinking binge that ends in the bed of paper flower seller and former prostitute Thel Russell (Mili Avital). It is there that Blake is “killed” when Thel’s jealous ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne) bursts into their room and shoots them both, killing her and nailing him in the chest with a bullet. Blake escapes into the night, but not before killing the ex-boyfriend in self-defense.
After passing out in the wilderness, Blake wakes up to find a large Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer) digging around his bullet wound with a knife. After determining the bullet’s too close to his heart to be removed, Nobody tells Blake that whoever shot him has killed him—he just isn’t dead yet. And though initially resolving to leave the “stupid fucking white man” to his fate, when Nobody learns that Blake shares the same name as the British poet he discovered and idolized while living as a kidnapped child in a European residential school, he decides to escort the dying man to the Pacific Ocean so he can properly enter the spirit-world. Blake needs Nobody’s help anyway, for the ex-boyfriend was actually Dickinson’s son and the infuriated, grief-stricken industrialist put a bounty on his head and hired three of the worst killers in the area to hunt him down and return him dead or alive.
And so begins Blake’s flight across the American West, a flight both to and from death. Along the way Blake will kill many, many men. Some of these deaths will be purely accidental, almost as if bystanders are infected by his inescapable doom, but as his delirium increases and his body fails, he transforms into a force of nature, slaying with little compunction and even less remorse, culminating in a scene where he viciously murders a bigoted missionary who tries to turn him in to the authorities. The act of killing itself is shown as a sacred, sanctifying act—in one scene Nobody only accepts the gift of a rifle from Blake after he’s assured that he killed the white man he took it from. Elsewhere, at the height of his blood-deprived hallucinogenic wanderings, the discovery of a gunshot fawn reduces him to a whimpering mess. He gingerly touches its fatal bullet wound like Thomas the wounds of Christ, lays down beside its corpse, and embraces it like a lost child. And still elsewhere one of Dickinson’s killers, the amoral cannibal Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), commits the single greatest act of blasphemy in the film by crushing the head of a murdered U.S. Marshal beneath his boot like an over-ripe melon. The Marshal’s head had fallen on a halo of sticks and twigs. “Looks just like a religious icon,” Cole’s over-talkative fellow bounty hunter Conway Twill (Michael Wincott) mutters in awe before Cole’s savage boot profanes the accidental shrine. Even Cole’s later slaying and eating of the other hired killers later in the film pales in the face of this great desecration.
Unusually for Westerns, even those from Revisionist directors, Dead Man received considerable acclaim for its respectful treatment of Native Americans. Farmer, himself descended from the Cayuga people, has several monologues and conversations with other Natives in both Cree and Blackfoot, all of which are left conspicuously un-subtitled. (As one commentator pointed out, this is perhaps the first Western ever made that assumes a Native audience.) But Jarmusch uses Native Americans as more than period appropriate set dressing—their presence literally embodies Blake’s abandonment of Western civilization and figuratively denotes the larger idea of the unmaking of the American creation myth. By fleeing the mechanization and urbanization of the Territories and killing the few remaining white people on the edges of the continent—among them lawmen, trappers, and missionaries who respectively represent the White Man’s law, commerce, and religion—Blake’s journey can be seen as a violent decolonization of the West, a return of the land from the invaders to the invaded.
Shot in stark monochrome by that master of detached solemnity Robby Müller, Dead Man is a film of near unspeakable beauty whose loveliness makes it unusual among Jarmusch’s oeuvre. Favoring blunt-force, rigidly structured mise-en-scène over pictorial majesty, his films are best remembered for the length, blocking, and stasis of their takes, not their visual elegance. But to see Dead Man is to have your brain seared with harrowing images—skulls in the night, bodies in the streets, trains in the wilderness, canoes in the ocean. Barring a theatrical rerelease, perhaps the best way to see the film is the Criterion Collection’s recent Blu-ray transfer which manages to clean the image up without making it seem sterile and antiseptic. The chilling beauty is still there alongside all its apocalyptic portents as one William Blake enters the eternal elsewhere dreamed of by another.