The New Cult Canon: Dead Man

The New Cult Canon: Dead Man

"Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are born
Every Morn and every Night
Some are born to Sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night."
—William Blake, "Auguries Of Innocence"

To me, the quintessential Jim Jarmusch moment arrives about halfway through his 1986 film Down By Law: Three prisoners (Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni) escape from a Louisiana penitentiary and spend the subsequent hours fleeing frantically through the forest and swamps, with lawmen and police dogs nipping at their tails. As day turns to dusk, they finally come upon a tiny riverside shack with a drearily recognizable interior: A cramped, 8-by-12' room with no furnishings, save for a pair of wooden bunk beds on each side. All that effort has moved them from one cell to another: "Man, this looks a little too familiar," sighs Lurie. The heroes in Jarmusch's movies are seekers—however reluctant many of them may be—but sometimes their journeys seem like so much running in place. Only in a Jarmusch film could winter in Cleveland and a beach in Florida look pretty much the same.

A similar air of inevitability hangs over Dead Man, Jarmusch's ambitious, fiercely idiosyncratic 1995 Western, and the Blake poem quoted above (and in the film itself) neatly suggests it. The William Blake in Dead Man—not the 18th- and 19th-century poet, but the accountant Bill Blake from Cleveland, played by Johnny Depp—never stood a chance from the moment he stepped onto a train heading to the last stop in the West. It's all right there in the title: He's one of the unfortunate ones born into Misery and Endless Night, and much of the film is about his accepting his predetermined fate rather than fighting to change it. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wrote an entire book on the film, amusingly put it in his review, "It may be the most protracted death scene in movies; by comparison, Garbo's death in Camille is a quickie."

By contrast, Dead Man's death at the arthouse was a Harvey Weinstein-style execution job. Jarmusch is the rare filmmaker who wields complete control over his work; he not only has final cut, he owns the negative. So when a company like Miramax comes calling, he's selling the distribution rights to a finished film, and the content isn't up for negotiation unless Jarmusch can be persuaded. After test screenings, Weinstein wanted the film recut; when Jarmusch refused, the two had a falling-out, and the film was dumped into theaters with a carelessness that bordered on contempt. (See also: future NCC possibility Velvet Goldmine.) But as a Chicagoan, I'm proud to say that the film's cult started here. Largely on the strength of Rosenbaum's advocacy—and over Roger Ebert's one-and-a-half-star dismissal—Jarmusch's so-called "acid Western" became a kind of local obsession, running nearly six months at the Music Box Theater, mostly as a midnight movie.

Today, Dead Man seems to me Jarmusch's most substantial effort since Stranger Than Paradise, and one of his best expressions of the four-walled limitations of being human, even in the lawless expanse of the West. Whereas traditional Westerns about the migration to the Pacific emphasize freedom and possibility, Dead Man goes to great lengths to reveal the death and destruction that went along with the pioneers' trailblazing, particularly how it affected Native Americans. Never is that more potent than in the early going, when every rifle-bearing yahoo on the train starts opening fire as a herd of buffalo passes in front of the window. It looks like they're killing for sport, but in fact, it's more insidious, part of a government-endorsed campaign to marginalize the Indians by slaughtering their livelihood. As ominous fellow traveler Crispin Glover notes, they "killed a million of them last year alone."

One in a long line of Jarmusch's fish-out-of-water characters, Bill Blake travels alone by train from Cleveland to the end of the train line, an Industrial Age pit called Machine. Depp's dreamy features may quicken the pulses of many, but Jarmusch turns it against him, reducing him to a short, ineffectual, creamy-skinned naïf in a plaid suit and Poindexter glasses. Late in the film, when a burly thug played by Billy Bob Thornton admires Blake for his "soft hair" ("mine's like barn hay," he says), he seems to be looking at Blake as if he were a woman. So as this odd man moseys into the town of Machine, toward the billowing smoke of Dickinson's Metalworks, he already feels like he's in imminent—if not immediate—danger.

Blake comes carrying a letter promising him a post as the company's accountant, but he's rebuffed by the second-in-charge (John Hurt), who tells him the position has already been filled. Blake tries to appeal to Dickinson (played in a wonderfully demented guest turn by Robert Mitchum), who greets him with a shotgun and a warning that "the only job you're going to get here is pushing up daisies from a pine box." Having spent virtually all of his money just getting to Machine, Blake barely has enough left to get drunk outside the saloon, but his gentlemanly nature at least wins him some female companionship for the night. Then his luck turns south again when the woman's fiancé (Gabriel Byrne), who also happens to be Dickinson's son, finds the two in bed together and whips out his pistol. The gunfight that follows leaves only Blake alive, but with a mortal wound that will slowly (slowly, sloooowly) wither him down until he finally passes on.

In the meantime, he's in much greater danger than he realizes—at least, as great a danger as someone who's already a dead man possibly can be. Dickinson has dispatched three bounty hunters, led by a glowering Lance Henriksen, who is rumored to have "fucked his parents, killed them, cooked them up, and ate them." And failing that, he's also got a handsome reward out to any other gunslinger who happens across Blake. Blake's only friend is a loner and outcast himself, an Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who believes Blake is actually the poet of the same name, and leads him on a journey with an unknown destination, at least to Blake and the audience.

Though they're ostensibly on the run, this journey is entirely an existential one, because there's no escaping the inevitable. Jarmusch deliberately frustrates the audience by never giving them a clear sense of direction or purpose, or tracking where certain groups of characters are in relation to one another. There's no talk of Blake hopping the train back to Cleveland or reaching some safe place where he can start anew; he's a dead man, after all, and the film details the process of him coming to terms with death and going out with a measure of dignity and spiritual enlightenment. And that's where Nobody comes in, to ease him gently from this world to the next.

Not that it's easy going. With everyone gunning for Blake's head, the film becomes a succession of tense encounters and deliberately awkward spasms of violence. Resisting the romanticized, slo-mo gunplay that's become an anti-Western staple since Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, Jarmusch stages the action in Dead Man with the same deadpan matter-of-factness that's long characterized his work. There's no glamour or satisfaction in people shooting at each other; through Jarmusch's lens, it looks ugly and pointless, and the fact that a trail of bodies pile up in his hero's wake is treated with maximum irony. Here's a typically (and hilariously) haphazard scene in which Blake accidentally lays claim to a few more victims:

What gives Dead Man special resonance—and plenty of rewatch value—is that it can be appreciated on several different levels at once: for the stark surface wonders of Robby Müller's black-and-white cinematography and Neil Young's rumbling guitar score; for its philosophically loaded journey from life to death; for its boldly de-romanticized portrait of the American West in transition, as it's reshaped by the pitiless forces of violence and industry; and, finally, for its unusually sensitive and detailed acknowledgement of Native American culture, which goes far beyond what even sympathetic Westerns in the past had been able to muster. Jarmusch has never been the sort of director with an "epic" vision, and he goes out of his way to avoid gargantuan gestures here, but Dead Man is as close to a grand statement as he's made to date, and one that offers endless food for thought on poetry, philosophy, violence, cinema, and how the West was really won.

Coming Up:

Next week: Wet Hot American Summer

June 19: The Boondock Saints (with special guest Overnight)

June 27: Punch-Drunk Love

And in July, Camp Month (featuring Wild Things, Roadhouse, Manos: The Hands Of Fate vs. Troll 2, and Showgirls)

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