Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Jim Jarmusch|
|Produced by||Demetra J. MacBride|
|Written by||Jim Jarmusch|
|Music by||Neil Young|
|Edited by||Jay Rabinowitz|
|Distributed by||Miramax Films|
|Box office||$1 million |
Dead Man is a 1995 American Western film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. It stars Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Michael Wincott, Lance Henriksen, Gabriel Byrne, Mili Avital and Robert Mitchum (in his final film role). The film, dubbed a "Psychedelic Western" by its director, includes twisted and surreal elements of the Western genre. The film is shot entirely in monochrome.Neil Young composed the guitar-dominated soundtrack with portions he improvised while watching the movie footage. It has been considered by many to be a premier postmodern Western. It has been compared to Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian.
William Blake (Johnny Depp), an accountant from Cleveland, Ohio, rides by train to the frontier company town of Machine to take up a promised accounting job in the town's metal works. During the trip, the train Fireman (Crispin Glover) warns Blake against the enterprise. Arriving in town, Blake notes the hostility of the townsfolk towards him. He then discovers that the position has already been filled, and he is driven from the workplace at gunpoint by John Dickinson, the ferocious owner of the company. Jobless and without money or prospects, Blake meets Thel Russell (Mili Avital), a former prostitute who sells paper flowers. He lets her take him home. Thel's ex-boyfriend Charlie surprises them in bed and shoots at Blake, accidentally killing Thel when she tries to shield Blake with her body. The bullet passes through Thel and wounds Blake, but he is able to kill Charlie using Thel's gun before dazedly climbing out the window and fleeing the town on Charlie's horse. Company-owner Dickinson is Charlie's father, and he hires three legendary frontier killers, Cole Wilson, Conway Twill, and Johnny "The Kid" Pickett to bring Blake back 'dead or alive'.
Blake awakens to find a large Native American man (Gary Farmer) attempting to dislodge the bullet from his chest. The man, calling himself Nobody, reveals that the bullet is too close to Blake's heart to remove, and Blake is effectively a walking dead man. When he learns Blake's full name, Nobody decides Blake is a reincarnation of William Blake, a poet whom he idolizes but of whom Blake is ignorant. He decides to care for Blake, and use Native methods to help ease him into death. Blake learns of Nobody's past, marked both by Native American and white racism; it is detailed that he is the product of lovers from two opposing tribes, and how as a child he was abducted by English soldiers and brought to Europe as a model savage. He was briefly educated before returning home, where his stories of the white man and his culture were laughed off by fellow Native Americans. He gained his name, Xebeche, at this point, the literal translation of which is revealed to be "He who talks loud, saying nothing". Nobody resolves to escort Blake to the Pacific Ocean to return him to his proper place in the spirit-world.
Blake and Nobody travel west, leaving a trail of dead and encountering wanted posters announcing higher and higher bounties for Blake's death or capture. Nobody leaves Blake alone in the wild when he decides Blake must undergo a vision quest. On his quest, Blake kills two U.S. Marshals, experiences visions of nature spirits, and grieves over the remains of a dead fawn that was killed accidentally by his pursuers. He paints his face with the fawn's blood and rejoins Nobody on their journey. Meanwhile, the most ferocious member of the bounty hunter posse, Cole Wilson, has killed his comrades (eating one of them) and continued his hunt alone.
At a trading post, a bigoted missionary identifies Blake and attempts to kill him but is instead killed by Blake. Shortly after, Blake is shot again and his condition rapidly deteriorates. Nobody hurries to take him by river to a Makah village and convinces the tribe to give him a canoe for Blake's ship burial. Delirious, Blake trudges through the village, where the people pity him before collapsing from his injuries. He awakens in a canoe on a beach wearing Native American funeral dress. Nobody bids Blake farewell and then pushes the canoe out to sea. As he floats away, Blake sees Cole approaching Nobody, but is too weak to cry out and can only watch as the two men shoot and kill each other. As he looks up at the sky one last time, Blake dies and his canoe drifts out into the sea. The film fades out with beams of sunlight in the clouds still visible, showing Blake is either in the Spirit World or has been reborn again.
There are multiple references in the film to the poetry of William Blake. Xebeche aka Nobody recites from several Blake poems, including Auguries of Innocence, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and The Everlasting Gospel. When bounty hunter Cole warns his companions against drinking from standing water, it references the Proverb of Hell (from the aforementioned Marriage), "Expect poison from standing water". Thel's name is also a reference to Blake's The Book of Thel. The scenes with Thel culminating in the bedroom murder scene visually enact Blake's poem, "The Sick Rose: "O rose, thou art sick!/ The invisible worm/ That flies in the night,/ In the howling storm,/ Has found out thy bed,/ Of crimson joy,/ And his dark secret love/ Does thy life destroy." The film's soundtrack album and promotional music video also features Depp reciting passages from Blake's poetry to the music composed by Neil Young for the film.
Although the film is set in the 19th century, Jarmusch included a number of references to 20th century American culture. Benmont Tench, the man at the campsite played by Jared Harris, is named after Benmont Tench, keyboardist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Billy Bob Thornton's character, Big George Drakoulias, is named for record producer George Drakoulias. The marshals chasing Blake are named Lee Hazlewood and Marvin Throne-berry, after Lee Hazlewood and Marv Throneberry, and it is also an allusion to the American actor Lee Marvin. Nobody's name ("He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing") is a reference to the James Brown song "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing". Michael Wincott's character is shown in possession of a Teddy bear. Also, when asked his name, Xebeche states, "My name is Nobody." My Name Is Nobody was an Italian Western film from 1973 starring Henry Fonda and Terence Hill, and the prolific answer of Ulysses to the Cyclops when asked the same question.
Dead Man is generally regarded as being extremely well researched in regard to Native American culture.
The film is also notable as one of the rather few films about Native Americans to be directed by a non-native and offer nuanced and considerate details of the individual differences between Native American tribes free of common stereotypes. The film contains conversations in the Cree and Blackfoot languages, which were intentionally not translated or subtitled, for the exclusive understanding of members of those nations, including several in-jokes aimed at Native American viewers. The Native character was also played by an Indigenous American actor, Gary Farmer, who is a Cayuga.
In its theatrical release, Dead Man earned $1,037,847 on a budget of $9 million. Then, it was the most expensive of Jarmusch's films, due, in part, to the costs of ensuring accurate period detail.
Critical responses were mixed. Roger Ebert gave the film one-and-a-half stars (out of four stars maximum), noting "Jim Jarmusch is trying to get at something here, and I don't have a clue what it is".Desson Howe and Rita Kempley, both writing for the Washington Post, offered largely negative appraisals.Greil Marcus, however, mounted a spirited defense of the film, titling his review "Dead Again: Here are 10 reasons why 'Dead Man' is the best movie of the end of the 20th century." Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum dubbed the film an acid western, calling it "as exciting and as important as any new American movie I've seen in the 90s" and went on to write a book on the film, entitled Dead Man (ISBN 0-85170-806-4) published by the British Film Institute. The film has a 71% approval rating on website Rotten Tomatoes based on 51 reviews, with an average rating of 7.13/10. The site's consensus reads: "While decidedly not for all tastes, Dead Man marks an alluring change of pace for writer-director Jim Jarmusch that demonstrates an assured command of challenging material".Metacritic reports a score of 62 out of 100 from 20 critics, indicating "Generally favorable reviews".
Neil Young recorded the soundtrack by improvising (mostly on his electric guitar, with some acoustic guitar, piano and organ) as he watched the newly edited film alone in a recording studio. The soundtrack album consists of seven instrumental tracks by Young, with dialog excerpts from the film and Johnny Depp reading the poetry of William Blake interspersed between the music.