Revisiting “Dead Man”: Jim Jarmusch’s Frontier Underworld and the Nightshade of the American Self

 

I revisited this film a little while ago, Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 Johnny Depp starring black and white western Dead Man.  It’s something of a minor cult classic and is loaded with great character actors (Lance Henrikson, Michael Wincott, John Hurt, Robert Mitchum, Iggy Pop, Alfred Molina, and Billy Bob Thornton among many others), and boasts a twangy electrical guitar score from Neil Young.  Dead Man distinguishes itself as a mood film, a darkly comic acid western, setting the west as a place of mystery, darkness and senseless violence.  Jarmusch has managed to convey the frontier not as a place of hope, destiny, or expansion, but as a descent into darkness.  He has essentially made the anti-western, a deconstruction of every genre convention, and by extension, a satire of the American self.

This is a study of the film – spoilers ahead.

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The film begins as William Blake, (Johnny Depp), a milquetoast accountant from Cleveland rides in a train coach west to fill a job at a steelworks in a town called Machine.  After each train stop, the further west Blake gets, the characters surrounding him change from men in suits and petticoat brigade school marms to cowboys and from cowboys to mountain men.  The train fireman, a kind of harbinger of warning covered entirely in soot warns Blake to forget about it and return home as a trove of gunslingers start blasting their rifles out the window to kill as many buffalo as possible.  Once Blake arrives, he finds out that not only has his job already been filled, but his would be boss (Robert Mitchum) is a Hades with a shotgun, his office beset by animal skulls and stuffed animals.  Blake leaves and explores the town while he contemplates his fate, and runs into the culture of the rowdy gunslinger at a saloon, and runs into a flower girl.  Blake’s meeting with Thel (Greek for desire or will and eponymous title of a Blake poem), starts with a moment of sweetness and they get cozy, a situation that doesn’t last long as her ex-boyfriend Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) catches them in the act – shooting a slug through Thel and into Blake’s chest.  Blake retaliates and shoots Charlie dead.  Wounded and paniced over the incident, Blake flees town on a stolen horse.  Later Blake wakes to find a native man called Nobody (Gary Farmer) over him trying to dig out, unsuccessfully, the slug with a knife.  Nobody asks Blake if he has any tobacco on him.  In what becomes a running joke, the doomed 2e86b5eae1852b0c01ba2718d8f44acaBlake says “I don’t smoke” to which Nobody says “stupid fucking white man.”  Nobody accept a mission, though, agreeing to flee with Blake, guiding him west to the ocean to return his spirit to the afterlife.  Not only is Blake then slowly dying throughout the journey, he is also being chased.  It turns out that Charlie’s father is the owner of the metal works, and hires three gunslingers to track down Blake and kill him.

 

 

From these first scenes we are thrust quickly into a world of subverted genre expectations.  A job already filled, a love story that ends in premature death, and already our hero is mortally wounded.  Jarmush beguiles us by inverting every assumption of a genre that has classically been identified with glorifying the American conquest.

 

The western in particular identifies itself with the transcendental American self.  Frederic Jackson Turner’s 1893 thesis that modern democracy was forged in the Western frontier, beset by individualistic pursuit, the idealization of the wildcatter, rancher and yeoman farmer.  Straddling the modernity and culture of the developed East Coast on the one foot with the savage wilderness on the other, the American identity was forged as a rugged frontier individualist with a supreme sense of racial purity and nationalistic mission in all its optimism.  Turner, for his part, viewed the frontier experience as the cultural groundwork of the American democratic self.  This became a convincing story over the next half century of Turnerism, but the truth was far more complex once one considered what Turner neglected – that the western conquest was horribly violent and racist.  And his idealization of the classless Jeffersonian yeoman farmer eschews the reality of corporate monopolies and large scale commercial expansionism by the plutocratic class.  Historian Patricia Nelson Limerick makes the case in The Legacy of Conquest that Western expansion was not just a bunch of free soiling pastoralists, but was a vast commercial enterprise for the banks, railroads, big steel, and silver mining operations that advanced the industrial revolution across the continent and forged American capitalism.

 

In spite of the industrial and genocidal realities of the frontier, the myth of a democratic egalitarian American took hold, inspiring expansionist policy for the last century and a half, propelled first by figures like Theodore Roosevelt.  It was a convincing myth, or a commercial, for the west through the story of Manifest Destiny.  It was an optimistic, if racist, creed, a will to power for the white man, a striving over the vicissitudes of the wilderness to conquer savagery and death with the salvific features of the touched culture.  It was through violence that the race could remake the land from its virgin soil to a familiar and omnipotent modern order.  So the traditional western, having roots in dime novels and Wild Bill Cody’s show is really about this triumph, converting reality to legend with the bravery and brutality of the western story.  It’s about how the courage of the hunter-hero, from Natty “Leatherstocking” Bumpo to Davy Crockett, and later the archetypal character of the gunfighting law man from Wyatt Earp to Marshall Dylan, served as the central lawbringing hero of this story granting civilized justice and hence redemption of the wild wild west.

 

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Nobody

 

 

In Jarmusch’s vision, though, we have a acid western and antithesis to the glamorous western.  Neil Young’s bizarre twangy score won’t garner praise, but does offer a profound departure for a western, highlights moments of Blake’s descent into a frontier of death.  It contrasts sharply with the triumphant scores of Elmer Bernstein and Max Steiner or even the bombast of Ennio Morricone.  Jarmusch’s choice to use black and white is an interesting one here as well – setting itself apart from the saturated Technicolor and studio lights of early westerns.  Jarmusch’s west is one of mad violence and decay.  Instead of civilization “saving” the wilderness, it wrought hell.  The myth of the machine meant the genocide of a people.

 

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A pile of 180,000 buffalo skulls used as “fertilizer.”  (Rougeville, MI 1892)

 

 

The further west Blake and Nobody travel, the more the journey resembles Dante and Virgil’s descent into Inferno, beset by madness and violence.  Every living creature appears on the cusp of being killed, whether human or nonhuman.  The further Blake and Nobody travel.  Nobody says he thinks Blake is a poet.  And there is a presumption here that he is being literal, and thus a bit daft.  But it is Nobody who is winking to the audience, the in joke is with us, while Blake himself is continually oblivious about his namesake, and he appears equally naïve about his entire journey.

 

Nobody accompanies Blake in the journey west with the bounty hunters in pursuit and they get into a number of different troubles along the way.  What is interesting is how easy and capricious violence and death is – erupting in fits of passion, chance and accident.  Jarmusch’s west is not an advance of an enlightened sacrosanct culture taming the virgin wilderness of American myth, but a precession of violent drunken madness leaving destruction in its wake.  But it goes far beyond mere sympathy for the native, a la Broken Arrow, Little Big Man, or Dances with Wolves.  Jarmusch’s is a hypnotic, cannibalistic fever dream of the west.  It is the genre viewed upside down, from the perspective of the underworld, from the land of the dead, from the ghosts of the west.  Like the tarot, the man hung upside down.

 

Nobody, as Blake’s guide and psychopomp to the underworld, is a hermit to Blake’s hanged man.  True to William Blake’s poem “Book of Thel,” the journey is one from innocence to experience through the fall, and quite the fall it is.  Mythology tells us that one version of the hero’s journey is to acquire the knowledge of life and death, be it Finn McCool and the Salmon of Knowledge, or the four sights of the Buddha.  The journey from innocence to experience the Socratic existential struggle with morality.

 

At a critical point Nobody sends Blake on a vision quest where he has a vision nature spirits.  And grieves over a dead fawn killed by his pursuers.  He paints his face with the blood of the fawn and rejoins Nobody.  Meanwhile, Cole (Lance Henrikson), a bounty hunter pursuing Blake, kills his comrades, and eats one of them.

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Nobody and Blake come across a bigoted white trader (Alfred Molina), who Nobody warns is selling diseased blankets to natives.  In an argument with his trader, Blake kills him, and is shot once again.   His condition deteriorates further.  Nobody and Blake get into a canoe and head down river to the underworld, Nobody as his boatman, Charon.

 

 

Nobody takes Blake, who is now delirious, to a Makah village, who give a canoe for Blake’s boat grave.  Blake, in funeral dress, drifts to sea as Cole and Nobody shoot each other.  In this west, in this underworld, there are no false rescues, no heroes, no triumphs.  There is no redemptive woman, no riding off into the sunset, no optimistic creed.

 

Jarmusch succeeds at a bold vision by precisely going against the grain of the familiar American culture of victory.  It is a culture which Henry James called a “death-denying” one, and which D.H. Lawrence wrote “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, and a killer  It has never yet melted.”   This resignation to death, to the Socratic equalizer, is where Jarmusch leads us.  Dead Man makes due with its tragicomic title, killing off everything.  There just remains dead men in the end.

 

From William Blake’s “Book of Thel”:

The eternal gates’ terrific porter lifted the northern bar:

Thel enter’d in & saw the secrets of the land unknown.

She saw the couches of the dead, & where the fibrous roots

Of every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists:

A land of sorrows & of tears where never smile was seen.

.

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She wanderd in the land of clouds thro’ valleys dark, listning

Dolours & lamentations; waiting oft beside a dewy grave,

She stood in silence, listning to the voices of the ground,

Till to her own grave plot she came, & there she sat down…

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