This being a review in a month-long exploration of the Western genre.
Update late 2018: After a re-watch, I’m not entirely satisfied with my original, college-age review. (Would that I ever was?). In particular, I find my more nihilistic reading of Dead Man to be hopelessly mired in my youth. In its interplay of shaken signifiers and layered meanings, Jarmusch’s film is never nihilistic. If it reduces the Western to a pageant, it also animates new possibilities for pageantry, retexturing the Western as a kind of poetry as Emersonian as it is Derridean, as open to reconnecting with space and nature as it is exposing its inabilities to do so. The film thrives on an immanent tension, and would that more films followed suit.
After all, if this film re-reads all films as lies, is not Dead Man part of that great filmic canard as well? Dead Man is not “truth”, nor does it want to be. It’s a self-reflexive, filmic op-ed piece, overstated for pure effect. In its untethering from reality, it associatively overlays, blurs, and emulsifies various images and sounds together in new, unexpected ways, shattering pre-established truths and restitching them with an eye not for their cohesion but their imaginative associations, for the spaces in between them, for the breakages and fractures which expose the stitching of reality and the potential for reorganizing sound, space, and mind to new ends. A lyrical expression of the Western as out-of-body experience, it not only critiques the genre; it breaks it, and resurrects it as something anew. What it ultimately imagines is not anti-Western, really, but a new, hopefully prognostic breed of cinema, one not only interested in excoriating the Western myth but also in conjuring a new, more mutable one, a vision of the Western as self-critical, poetic play. I’ll keep the original review up for posterity’s sake, but read at your own risk!
Original Review (Edited mid-2015):
Dead Man is a revisionist Western, sure, but there have been many great revisionist Westerns (look to Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven from three years before-hand for ample evidence). There certainly have not, however, been many movies like Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch’s attempt at creating not a gritty non-myth but an anti-myth – and it’s a marvel of marrying acidic form to acerbic content. This is not only a revisionist Western, but an anti-revisionist Western, an anti-Western, even an anti-film.
Early on in the film, William Blake (Johnny Depp) arrives in a black-and-white Western town, just as Western heroes have done in the celluloid of our minds for decades on end. But the scene is nothing out of a human mind. Blake is an accountant. Not a lawman or an outlaw. A mild, lowly accountant. He’s also completely out of his league. He walks into the town, passing directly in front of a coffin as if set up just for him, looking unnerved and unsure of himself. He’s decked out in a top hat, a checkered suit, and carrying nothing but his cartoonishly large accountant’s briefcase. He doesn’t belong, unlike so many films where the hero mysteriously rides into town to save the day, championed as the righteous individual but looking exactly like all of them.
The Wild Bunch, which had robbers dressed as respectable lawmen ride in, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which featured a slow, decrepit-looking man, almost invisible due to a cloak around him, ride in like a sore thumb both commented on the falsity of the Western image by creating something ostensibly more “realistic”. Here though, we have something different. We’re given a town from hell, a feverish place the product of nightmares, and we’re made to realize it as such. As Blake walks through town, everything appears, of all things, fake. Everything stands still. Grotesque looking, malformed people stop to gander directly at him as if for no other reason than because they have nothing to do but stare. There are piles upon piles (and I do mean piles) of skulls and bones lying around everywhere, and one man cleaning and displaying them all seemingly just for Blake. And as we’re given his sight through POV shots, we don’t think he doesn’t belong, we think the whole place doesn’t. It implicates us, all but saying “why would this image exist?” and begging why a town like this would even want an accountant in the first place. And another question: why would a film, any film, put these images together like this? And why would we want to believe it? Or see it?
Of utmost import: Blake rides in to town not on a hero’s horse, but a train, a symbol of technology effacing the spirit of man and nature, and yet one which innately built the West and allowed for what heroes and villain which may have existed to move around. In other words, a symbol which immanently exposes the Western’s self-paradoxical nature, its fetish for white males spiritually absolving themselves of modernity’s sins only insofar as they implicitly conform to Western modernity’s imperialist, capitalist rape of the earth and desecration of the world and people around them. By the way, the town’s name is “Machine”, if that isn’t obvious enough for you. In fact, everything in the film is a machine in human form; these aren’t characters but plot machines to be turned and pulled in whichever way the narrative requires. Blake is left to react; he’s agency-less. He doesn’t come to find redemption – he comes to exist for a narrative. Early on, he’s told his job has been filled before he even arrived in town, his place in the world – his identity in a capitalist and narrative world-system – filled, his identity fundamentally interchangeable. (Told, nonetheless, by his would-be employer (Robert Mitchum), who talks to a stuffed bear in a tremendously droll conversation between man and nature, the very theme of the Western rendered so obviously literalized it’s a scathing ruse here).
Left to wander, Blake ends up killing his would-be employer’s son as an accident. The son (Gabriel Byrne) is dressed in all black, as though he were an obvious villain, yet he philosophizes and calmly leaves, before being drawn back to commit violence by a line of dialogue so obvious it’s as though it turns a switch in his machine-like body to do what the narrative tells him, to kill. Blake defends himself, shooting at close-range twice and missing as Byrne stands there as if waiting to be hit, before Blake inevitably does hit on the third shot. In doing so, he seals his fate to be hunted by plot-machines (who appear bored and uninterested throughout the film) in the process. The whole thing plays like a storybook, or a really bad B-movie, but Jarmusch plays things so ruthlessly serious that he elevates it to high art, an especially brutal form of satire where we’re constantly asking “why” anything happens as is, so much so that Jarmusch refuses to even let us realize he’s in on the joke.
Dead Man rides its rigid post-structuralism and openly constructed nature so far that it becomes violently deconstructive, all while searching for a poetic language to rethink the Western outside of its narrative confines, to re-expose it to new possibilities. On one hand, Jarmusch turns the Western into a children’s play, directing his actors like a hack and constructing their attire so obviously and with so much artificial pageantry that the whole edifice of the genre comes crumbling down. Compositionally, he places characters in the center of frames to render them not natural humans who move with feeling and exist but props placed up by a formalist. All the while, Jarmusch highlights the foreground intentionally to make the background look like one of those blurry, phony, painted-screen backgrounds popular in old films. Characters talk like they belong in the present, in the mind of a screenwriter, or no where at all. The whole thing feels like a dream, the kind we want to have of the old West exposed for the fantasy it really is.
And through all this, something far deeper than a desire to re-write the rules of the “classic” period Western lurks. Before Blake arrives in “Machine”, we’re told by an obviously white male in obvious blackface, that this is a train to hell, before having everyone on the train shoot buffalo. Why? Because it makes sense for the film’s revisionism to do so – the revisionist Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s were all about making the Western gritty and real by propping up violence all around. They sought to expose the realities of the violent lie of the classical, good-natured moral Western of the early 1900s, and thus the lie of American society as a good, law-abiding nation built on morals to match. They were a revolutionary attempt to capture the gruesome grotto of American lies.
And Dead Man has a few choice words for revisionist Westerns. It renders not only the “classical” moral Western with its good-natured lawmen and easy-to-spot criminals a lie, but it critiques the belief that one could ever attack the realism of another type of film, say the classical Western, with a new type of film, the revisionist Western. At one point in the middle of the film, Depp’s character has a skull projected over his face non-diegectically, just because Jarmusch wanted us to know that he’s a dead man. The joke is that in any other revisionist Western he’d be a dead man because he got on the wrong side of the law as a timid man who never meant to kill but whose life was destroyed by the Wild West we champion as so valiant and moral. Those films were ultimately all about “realism”, re-reading the classic Western as a lie of mid-century moral conservatism, a bedtime lie to comfort children. In Dead Man, however, Blake is not a dead man. He’s not a man – he’s a cardboard cutout, with a fluorescent new skeleton painted on him in chalk. He can’t die, or kill, or live, and yet the film insists he must do these things anyway by pretending to be a revisionist Western and then undoing the very logic of the genre. This is Jarmusch’s stagecraft vision of the West, where people act in luminously stilted ways, approaching each other and conversing with the pointless non-vigor and obvious under-nourishment of a particularly ramshackle high school play. And, even when they are meant to invoke the violence of the “real” Wild West, they kill this artificially too.
The crux of the point is that revisionist Westerns are films too, something we often forget in our desires to claim beacons of “reality”. If they are interested in exposing the harsh truth of how a regular man in the Wild West could become a vicious, hardened killer, they also must set up a fictional narrative where-in fictional characters line-up on the command of a director to expose that harsh “truth”. In overturning classical myths, they only obfuscate their own construction. Jarmusch sees fiction not in 1950s moral conservatism, but in the very language of film, a representational form here rendered presentation, theater, a construction. To paraphrase Horace Mann, Jarmusch is giving us the great equalizer – a film so cavalier and composed and cheerily clinical in its formalism as to directly attack with great vengeance the core of filmic language. He is not pushing back against a specific “type” of Western, but grouping them all together, along with all films, and serving them to us, their lies cut open for all to see, on a silver platter.
To this extent, Jarmusch gives the lion’s share of the work, but Neil Young’s acid-drenched guitar score is also of special note. His guitar playing, which emphasizes mood, discomfort, tension, and raw emotion over classical melody or flow perfectly complements Jarmusch’s style (and Young’s for that matter). It cuts against the grain and feels like it doesn’t belong; in fact, the modern sounding music makes us question whether this is a Western all along, creating a tension between the aural and visual. Given the film’s commentary on revisionism, it’s hard to argue it wasn’t the point. And given its brutal, disconcerting impact, it’s hard to feel it wasn’t.
Ultimately, Jarmusch gives us no “reality” to tether to, not a revisionist one nor a classical one. We’re left with nothing but the notion of the world as a question mark, and history as historiography, and that’s a truly scary, damning indictment. Dead Man isn’t interested in revising the West; it’s interested in reminding that we can never truly revise the West, and that any attempt to do so is as much prone to falsity as the image it critiques.
Now, I don’t entirely agree that a revisionist Western is a bad thing – it is a lie in the sense that all films must be, but it can still reveal the “essence” of a truth lost to classical Westerns, and it can serve as a necessary riposte to older more problematic lies. But I suspect Jarmusch doesn’t believe completely in his film’s argument either – it’s perhaps an argument for the sake of argument, a true filmic devil’s advocate. Above all, it’s a reminder that the power, skill, and importance of film is found not in its existence as reality but in its existence as an artificial construction worthy of the lie of reality. And, in terms of pure possibility, it’s about as exciting as any film made in the modern era.