‘Dead Man’ and the Surreal Landscape of Jim Jarmusch

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 sweet delight/Some are Born to Endless Night

—William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

The raw, poetic cinematics of Dead Man, director Jim Jarmusch’s take on the American western, are immediately felt from its opening moments. From the window of a train we see the evolving landscape of the frontier, lush and vibrant at first and then, suddenly, arid and dead. Our train serves as a kind of liminal protection from the harshness of the changing landscape (itself indicative of the changing country, moving, as it was, from agrarian to industrial), ferrying one William Blake (Johnny Depp) from the confines of his known world into that of the vast unknown.

This new world, unknown to Blake—not the poet, quoted above, but a mere accountant, hailing from Cleveland—is hellish in both appearance and function. We are, it’s clear, a long way from the civilized life he has known until now, a truth we first suspect aboard the protective confines of his train. There, he sits well-groomed and well-kept, standing in stark contrast to his fellow passengers who are dirty and unkempt in their appearance.

He jumps at gunshots, is uncomfortable among the unwashed masses, and looks every bit of what he must feel: hopelessly out of place. This is not the western hero we are accustomed to, but neither is Dead Man the typical western.

While the western genre has always been steeped in the language of myth and heroes, Dead Man finds Jarmusch taking this sensibility a few steps farther than ever before. Compared to the likes of, say, John Ford (who, as much as anyone, is responsible for establishing the archetypes of the genre), whose work can be taken as a kind of cultural mythification, reliant upon a collective nostalgia for time past, Jarmusch works within the language of the surreal. Through that, he rips apart the haze of nostalgia that settles into most examples of the genre to create a new kind of myth, one which is uniquely and wholly American in both nature and purpose.

Dead Man moves like a fever dream, and the lines between the real and unreal are blurred into non-existence. In a new essay written for the stunning new Criterion Collection release of Dead Man, film critic Amy Taubin discusses the differing modes of interpretation one might take while viewing the film, each making their own kind of sense, and each defensible with evidence from the film itself. “One is that all of it is Blake’s dying vision,” she writes. “Another is that he has already died and is journeying through something like the bardo or purgatory. And still another is that Nobody [the mystical Indian guide played by Gary Farmer]…finds Blake in the wilderness and decides it is his mission to teach…[Blake]…by taking him on a trip across physical as well as metaphysical realms.”

Taubin concludes that it hardly matters which mode of interpretation you choose, or even which is correct. What matters is that all three of these readings lead us to the same place, that is, the pressing inevitability of death and the dread that knowledge inspires in us all. Even if we strip away the more ethereal interpretations of the work and take Dead Man at face value—that is to say, if we imagine there’s no deeper metaphysical meaning behind it, and everything we see is literal—we are left with the same conclusion.

But Jarmusch is not here solely for those reasons; the inner workings of Dead Man are intricately layered, leading us down many a philosophical sideroad to muse not just on the fleeting nature of existence, but the fleeting nature of everything—society, norms, and even America itself. In a Q&A with Jarmusch featured on the new edition from Criterion, the director reveals that the film is set sometime in the 1870s. Culturally, in that period, we were standing on the precipice of a new age, and the industrial revolution was gearing up to full steam.

This returns us to the idea of liminal spaces (itself supporting the idea that Blake is dead and experiencing a kind of purgatory) and periods of transition. After his train arrives to the town of Machine, somewhere in Western American, Blake finds himself in a world steeped in the emergence of technology. His would be job as an accountant for a metal works company, which brought him from the civilized comforts of Cleveland, is one that might not have existed just a few years ago. The country, indeed, the world, is in the midst of change.

Yet that change has not brought with it the seeds of civilization. The town of Machine is one of raw, unbridled barbarism; the skulls of dead animals line the walls of the town’s buildings, blowjobs are given vigorously in the streets, and guns are shot with abandon. It’s within this setting that the mild-mannered, civilized Blake becomes a killer. Though in self-defense, the corruption of Blake’s soul is swift and evident.

As an injured, probably dying Blake flees town he is stumbled upon by the outcast Indian, Nobody (the same character would appear four years later in Jarmusch’s modern-set Ghost Dog, adding to the surreality of Dead Man), who informs Blake that he must cross the mirror into the next world. Here we see a balance between old ways and new, with Blake himself standing in as a liminal symbol between the more naturalistic past of America and the technological future. Just as Blake’s soul stands in the balance, so, too, does America’s.

All this new technology hasn’t led to anything more civilized, and Nobody sees this better than anybody. Blake himself tries to hang onto the vestiges of his civilization—his perceived humanity—even as the forces of his so-called civil society are hot on his heels in pursuit, committing atrocities of their own. In what might be the most harrowing image from the film, one of these men of civilization, Cole Wilson (played by Lance Henrickson), kills one of his cohorts, and sits alone by his campfire, eating a human arm.

Technology or no, civilization or not, the human spirit is ripe for corruption, and Nobody understands that. While looking at Blake’s gun, taken during the murderous confrontation that kick started his journey, he tells Blake, “That Weapon will replace your tongue. You will learn to speak through it. And your poetry will now be written with blood.” There is, perhaps, no better symbol of the rise in the personalization of technology than the rise of the fabled six-shooter, and nothing more indicative of America. (Early in the film, when Blake finds the pistol beneath the pillow of his lover, he asks why she has it. “Because this is America,” she responds.)

The lesson here isn’t inherently anti-gun, but rather that nothing we do can change what we are. We are but beasts, feigning civilization while doing what beasts do. This point is hammered home again some time later when Blake, being confronted by a pair of marshals seeking his arrest, asks them, “Do you know my poetry?” before gunning them down in cold blood. All the civilization in the world couldn’t stop the corruption of Blake’s soul because man, ultimately, is a corruptible beast.

Never has this felt more prescient than it does today, when all the ancient tribalism and blood feuds are largely conducted not just at the behest of technology but through them. It doesn’t matter how evolved we become or what new marvels we create, in the end, man is still man, which is to say, a beast. We, in America, as Americans, are as quick to forget this as anyone. The troubles that plague our culture (indeed, our world) aren’t that different from the troubles of years past. Everything old is new again.

As Jarmusch re-envisions the tropes and mythologies of the Old West and the western genre, he strips them of the comforting warmth of nostalgic remembrances. As surreal as his envisioning is, it touches upon the harsh realities of the period that we like to forget, creating a push-pull dynamic between the real and the unreal. Even as we debate what, if anything, is real in the movie, Dead Man shows us our own flights of fancy, forcing to contend with our own myths about the period and face the cold light of truth. Real, unreal. Man, beast. All lines are blurred, and whatever path we choose leads us all to the same destination.

Death may be the final fate, but perhaps its inevitability lessens its blow. It’s the before death we have to worry about, and the ultimate futility of life is the well-spring of all fear. That we die is foregone; the real dread is whether we can make it there uncorrupted, and the unspoken knowledge that it might not be possible. Have we been corrupted? Has America? Dead Man leaves that for us to decide but, corruption or not, civilization or not, we, like Blake, are all trapped in our own hellish purgatories.

The Criterion Collection release of Dead Man is now available. Purchase here.

Listen to Neil Young’s score here:

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