Review first published by EyeForFilm
William Blake (Johnny Depp) is taking the long train journey north to a frontier town called Machine at “the end of the line”, where he is to be employed as an accountant at Dickinson’s metalworks – but when he gets there, he discovers that the post is long gone, and that the only job going for him, as Dickinson (Robert Mitchum) himself puts it, is “pushing up daisies in a pine box”. Blake ends up fleeing town after becoming involved in an altercation over a flowergirl (Avital) that has left him gravely wounded and Dickinson’s youngest son Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) dead. With a bullet lodged by his heart, and a posse of hired killers on his tail, Blake falls in with an Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who mistakes this “stupid white man” for his long-dead poetic namesake, and agrees to guide his new friend “to the place where William Blake is from.”
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man begins as it ends – with a journey. For while it is certainly a quirky take on the oater, shot by Robby Müller in sharply austere black and white to resemble the daguerreotype photography popular at the time in which it is set, it is also essentially a road movie, winding a long, crooked path that can be traced all the way back to the source of all western travel narratives, Homer’s Odyssey.
So it is that Blake does battle with cannibals and monsters, plays tricks with the name Nobody, assumes the status of a living legend and takes a mystic boat trip home – a latter-day Ulysses skirting the borderland between civilisation and wilderness, male and female, native and alien, sea and sky, life and death. The film’s unlikely hero may be a wide-eyed naïf from Ohio (not unlike Jarmusch himself), but his journey will take him through the darkest heart of American history to the place where everyone is headed in the end.
It’s a trip all right, too, with peyote-fuelled vision quests, a cross-dressing frontiersman (played by Iggy Pop!) and Crispin Glover’s intense turn as the train fireman all bringing their own oddball textures to the mix. This is a western of a decidedly revisionist bent, playing out its gunfights and scenes of violent brutality with such quiet understatement that it might equally have been called Dead Pan. Depp, ethereal and otherworldly, drifts through the film like a stranger in a strange land, all to the sparsely epic accompaniment of Neil Young’s haunting guitar score.
As a tale of innocence lost, Dead Man is the indie flipside of The Birth Of A Nation (1915), stripping away DW Griffiths’ 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, as he would later do again with Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999), and the result is a low-key classic of strangely poetic beauty – a western for sleepwalkers and dreamers.