William Blake arrives in the town of Machine, in extreme western frontier of America, to work in a factory as an accountant; but he has arrived one month late and he losses the job. In the first night of his arrival in the town, Blake meets a young girl and stays with her for the night but the girl’s former fiancé who is the son of Machine’s Metal Works Company comes and Blake kills him in self-defense and gets wounded. Next day he wakes up and meets Nobody who is an out cast Indian; he believes that Blake is the dead English poet. They go to a journey to” the other side” and on their way they go through different experiences and adventures which finally lead to their death. The journey transforms William Blake into a cold blooded killer.
Setting: the film is set in late 19th century, in extreme western frontier of America.
Genre: Western, Drama
Main Characters: Johnny Depp (William Blake), Gary Farmer (Nobody), Mili Avital (Thel Russell), Lance Henriksen (Cole Wilson), Michael Wincott (Conway Twill).
The Film Opens with a quote from the French surrealist poet Henri Michaux: “It is preferable not to travel with a dead man”, so from the beginning the audience knows that he is watching a highly metaphorical film. The names of the two main characters, William Blake (a long- dead English poet) and Nobody, are metaphorical as well. Both characters are searching and struggling for their identities: Blake has lost his family and takes the road to west in search of a place where he can start a new life. William Blake is a name of an English poet who was isolated from the society for protesting against the hypocrisy of British institutions. Jarmusch said he has used his name because Blake’s name reminds him of Native Americans in their mystical visions. Nobody, as his name suggests have no identity and feels no sense of belonging to his native land and is rejected both by Whites and his own people. So, he does not exist and seems to be invisible.
Contrary to American’s perception about the west as land of opportunity and abundance and western movies that put an emphasis on this false vision, the Dead Man portraits western land as a barren place where anarchic, cruel and primitive white man ruling.
The whole film is shot in black and white. In an interview Jarmusch said that he had used this technique in order to neutralize the familiarity of the objects and landscape. Also the emotional theme and tone of the story demands it: the story is full of violence and sense of morbidity and barrenness which is in contrast with American’s perception about the west. The black and white shooting also reminds the audience the Film Noire of the 1940s an50s.
Dead man also uses the fade-out technique which was used in older films to show the division between the scenes. In the film this technique is also used to show a sense of isolation between the different parts of the films and the physical status of the main character William Blake, whose health is deteriorating.
The music of the film is written and performed by Neil Young and is played by an electric guitar. The music is said to be played by him spontaneously as he watch the film.
Symbols and Metaphors
The film is full of symbols and metaphors both in scenes and speeches of the characters. As the train moves deeper in the western territories the landscape becomes harsher, and the passengers more uninviting and wild. What Blake sees when he walks in the Machine town for the first time, are all symbols of death: coffins, skulls and skins. There are other symbols and metaphors in the film such as the gun kept under the pillow by Thel, and when Blake asks why she keeps it she answers: “coz this is America.” Also the importance of tobacco in western culture is shown when repeatedly almost all characters of the film asks for it .As time passes Blake lose his glasses and watch which shows his separation from his former life and civilization.
The dead Man is one of the best western films which try to break the western movies cliché: This west is not land of opportunity, success and fertility but land of fear, brutality and barrenness. One may argue that the film is exaggerated in portraying the dark and ugly side of the American west, but I think the film is unique in that sense.
A Film Review: DEAD MAN
Title: Dead Man
Date of Release: May 26, 1995
Directed and Written: Jim Jarmusch
Main Characters: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott and John Hurt.