As its title implies, Jim Jarmusch’s existential Western is preoccupied with death, an event which a Native-American character describes as ‘passing through the mirror’. Although it is the director’s most ambitious film to date in terms of its period recreation, Dead Man is, like Stranger than Paradise (1982) and Down by Law (1986), another film about social outsiders, their travels, and the people that they encounter before arriving at their destination. Beautifully shot in black and white by the great Robby Mí¼ller, and accompanied by a jangling guitar score by Neil Young, this is perhaps the film that most perfectly encapsulates Jarmusch’s directorial persona, aligning his credentials as the New York ‘hipster’ who put American independent cinema on the map in the early 1980s with his personal fascinations with foreign cultures and the erosion of the American dream.
William Blake (Johnny Depp) is a recently orphaned accountant from Cleveland, who travels West by rail to take a position at a metal works in a town called Machine, a nightmarish melting pot of environmental pollution and moral corruption, which is appropriately located at ‘the end of the line’. Upon arrival, he is informed by the proprietor of the works, Dickerson (Robert Mitchum), that the position has been filled, and that his services are not required. Finding solace in a bottle of whisky, Blake encounters former prostitute Thiel (Mili Avital) when she stumbles out of a saloon, and ends up in bed with her, only to be interrupted by her lover Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), who also happens to be Dickerson’s son. Charlie murders Thiel, and wounds Blake, but the accountant fires back with Thiel’s pistol and kills Charlie with a shot to the neck.
After making an amusingly inept getaway by falling out of the window and riding away on Charlie’s horse, Blake awakens in the woods to find Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native-American outcast, trying to remove the bullet that is lodged close to his heart. Nobody points out that, because the bullet cannot be removed, Blake is already a ‘dead man’, as the wound will eventually prove to be fatal. The two men become riding companions, and Blake accepts his situation whilst wandering through the wilderness, while Dickerson dispatches three bounty hunters to bring his son’s killer to ‘justice’.
Jarmusch adopts the genre of the Western to comment on the state of contemporary America, and it’s often intertwined obsessions of violence, fame and money. ‘Why do you have this?’ Blake asks Thiel after discovering that she has a gun beside her bed. ‘Cause this is America’, is her reply. Most of the white characters are opportunistic hired killers, or want to attach themselves to the ‘celebrity’ of the outlaw that Blake unwittingly becomes, while Dickerson demands revenge for the murder of his son, but is more concerned about the return of his horse. Deadpan humour abounds, from a running joke about tobacco, to Mitchum delivering a speech to a stuffed bear, and Jarmusch achieves a haunting coda in which narrative trajectory meets spiritual transcendence. Buried by Miramax on its theatrical release in 1995 when Jarmusch refused to succumb to the editorial demands of Harvey Weinstein, Dead Man is a sublime experience that rewards repeat viewings.