Like Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (1968), Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) is a very strange, haunting, even hallucinatory film, both of which have been dismissed for a host of similar, not so compelling reasons. But like most things in life, films such as these are much more than they appear to be. Thus, it’s safe to say that Jarmusch’s “acid” (Rosenbaum), post-noir western is a particular frame used to explore larger, universal themes and issues. And chief among them, at least on my reading, is the dualism inherent in the western worldview, a zeitgeist that has given rise to violence upon violence that arguably came to fruition in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
If Jarmusch’s earlier films put a lighter, satirical (though still critical) finger on the vacuousness of contemporary American culture, Dead Man is a much more “serious” (though still very quirky, even comical in an absurdist sort of way) critique that cuts to the heart of the Western myth of progress and the accompanying American dream now dreamt by all good citizens. In Dead Man we find Jarmusch at the top of his game, employing the western – that most traditional and sacred of genres – in the service of a critique that subverts recalcitrant assumptions about “how the west was won.”
Adopting the western as he does, poetically, and then filtering it through Robby Müller’s stunning black and white lens, Jarmusch is able “to utilize its own iconography against itself to lay bare the spuriousness of its myths and ideology” (Moliterno). But Jarmusch’s critique is not simply for the sake of critique alone because something oddly life giving, dare I say even hopeful, rises from the ashes of his approach. While the overall effect of the film is initially quite destabilizing, the result is that the audience, along with the film’s protagonist, are made to “see” and “hear” differently as the genre utters forth a new language. As Adrian Martin well characterizes it: “Although Dead Man is obviously some kind of western, it’s not one of those smart homages to a Hollywood genre (like Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead) – it’s more like the ghostly burnt-out shell of a Western, commandeered for sullen and obscure purposes.”
What we have is a late-twentieth-century “psychedelic” (Jarmusch) western that foreshadows the noir nightmare to emerge in the early part of that century in the form of genocidal violence, moral turpitude, and environmental devastation; and it does so in a way that makes the traditional western appear trite and one-dimensional. But Jarmusch’s film, I would argue, is less a political commentary or critique, and more a poetic, even spiritual meditation that invites the viewer into a space of unknowing where difference abounds and the pseudo-certainty of dualistic thought recedes, giving way to reversals, repetition, juxtaposition, contradiction, irony, hyperbole, and comic absurdity. Given the foundational character of Jarmusch’s concerns, his choice to altogether abandon a traditional, plot-driven, tension-charged, narrative structure, in favour of an open-ended, poetic framework, should come as no surprise.
Consider how the film opens and subsequently unfolds as if we’re “watching” a poem being read, one rhythmic stanza at a time. Consider the array of poetic devices used to move the story along as Johnny Depp’s Buster Keaton-like character, William Blake, journeys from his home in the east to the promise of a job in the west. Consider the strange and ominous utterances by the train’s fireman, brilliantly played by Crispin Glover, that not only foretell what is to come but also connect the beginning of the film to the end, and vice versa. Consider the early stages of Blake’s spiral into worldview disintegration as he arrives at his destination and steps off the train into “a nightmarishly squalid settlement of festering pollution and nastiness” (Rosenbaum). Consider the ensuing, unpredictable and disorienting series of events that find Blake without a job and then running from the law after an awkwardly violent incident occurs through no direct fault of his own. Consider, finally, Blake’s further spiral into noir hell where he, as a “dead man”, is forced to relinquish everything familiar to an inscrutable person and process that are leading him inexorably to his fate.
It’s no coincidence then that the poetic movements of the film stand in quiet contrast to the violence inherent in a rationally driven, linear approach to filmmaking. In this way, Jarmusch reaches in the direction of Native spirituality that honors both life and death, recognizing as it does that one must be alive to death in order to truly live. In so doing, he demonstrates a profound level of sensitivity to aboriginal culture, not only by assuming a Native audience, but also by not pretending to know anything first-hand about their myths, spirituality, or cultural ways. Instead, he employs very Western conventions in the service of his critique that highlight the connective tissue between aboriginal and American cultures. Moreover, and importantly, this approach indicates a time when those two worlds co-existed (though awkwardly) ever so briefly, thus hinting at what might have been, but alas, never was. Significantly, Jarmusch achieves all of this without once pandering to the politically correct ideology that oozes sappy tolerance over our culture.
But in spite of the film’s apparent preoccupation with death and violence, the result, though sobering, is markedly different from that of typical North American film fare. As Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it: “Every time someone fires a gun at someone else in this film, the gesture is awkward, unheroic, pathetic; it’s an act that leaves a mess and is deprived of any pretense at existential purity, creating a sense of embarrassment and overall discomfort in the viewer….” It is completely “the reverse of what ensues from the highly aestheticized forms of violence that have become de rigueur in commercial Hollywood ever since the heyday of Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah, and which have been recently revitalized by Tarantino, among others.” In this way, concludes Rosenbaum, “Jarmusch refuses to respect or valorize bloodshed.” Jarmusch himself says that the violence in Dead Man is “probably not that unrealistic, because boom! gun goes off and guys get hit with metal and fall down like puppets with strings getting cut – which is kind of what we wanted it to feel like, shocking for a brief moment and then very still. Someone’s soul got taken.”
Indeed, everything about Jarmusch’s film calls into question mainstream, commercial filmmaking, and instead, in the tradition of classic film noir, focuses on the very things we love to paper over and avoid, the very focus that can liberate us from the grip of death and the cycle of violence. Paradoxically, “practicing” death, naming it, and thereby letting it in, allows us to recognize that the only power death and violence have is the power we give to them. In the end, if one finds Dead Man disquieting, unnerving, and more than a little disturbing, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably a very good thing.