Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 revisionist western Dead Man appropriately begins with a journey west. A fainthearted accountant from Ohio named William Blake travels by train to the distant town of Machine, where he’s been promised a job. En route, he looks bored and mostly avoids interacting with his fellow passengers, instead killing time by reading something called Bee Journal, playing solitaire, and drifting off to sleep. He appears visibly uncomfortable when he spies evidence of the violence of the Old West – destroyed covered wagons and teepees that look like skeletal remains – out his window. When the train’s soot-covered fireman visits Blake at his seat and delivers cryptic warnings about Machine, the accountant clutches his briefcase like a shield. Over the course of their conversation we learn that Blake’s parents have died and his fiancée has left him. He strikes us as a man with few remaining human connections and some hesitance to make new ones, at least with the rough-and-tumble men who fill the train when he gets close to his stop. Comparing him to the rugged characters that surround him, we can’t help but be aware of his vulnerability and seeming innocence.
Blake’s namesake, the famous British poet and painter, of course wrote extensively about innocence and experience, and his words are threaded throughout this film, often spoken by Nobody, a Native American who befriends and attempts to guide the young accountant. The poet Blake was interested in how innocence is lost and whether it could be regained, and he frequently criticized the corrupting influence of an increasingly industrialized society – all of which makes his work relevant to this story of a man confronted not just by his own mortality, but by the inherent violence of the society in which he lives. Upon arriving in Machine, Blake’s hopes of a new life are quickly dashed: first he discovers that someone else has filled his accounting job. Then, far more dramatically, his fling with a local girl named Thel turns abruptly violent: a jealous ex kills Thel and mortally wounds Blake, and Blake returns fire, killing his attacker and fleeing the town. Just like that, Blake’s innocence is lost. What follows is a journey toward death, but also toward greater wisdom.
Jarmusch evokes the Old West and old western movies through his use of familiar images – guns, horses, and campfires among them – as well as through the film’s beautiful black-and-white photography and the presence of a classic movie star in Robert Mitchum, who plays the vengeful father of the man that Blake kills. But rather than rehashing well-worn American myths, Jarmusch interrogates them. As I mentioned, when he’s safely seated on a train – an emblem of the Industrial Revolution and Manifest Destiny – Blake is able to shrink from the evidence of violence outside. But after he’s been shot and finds himself in Nobody’s care, Blake must face such violence head-on. Whether barely keeping upright on a horse or proceeding through the woods on foot, Blake is no longer protected from the elements, and owing to his actions back in Machine, he is also on the run from bounty hunters. He is forced to toughen up, quickly, and the episodes of violence keep coming.
Through all of this, Blake’s friendship with Nobody helps him to navigate the strange, dangerous new world that he finds himself in. The two sometimes baffle each other, but their playful bond gives the film much of its heart, and it plays a crucial role in Blake’s transformation from a meek accountant to a fierce, if doomed, gunslinger. As the film nears its final act, the impact of this relationship gives rise to Blake’s most righteous moment. Blake and Nobody walk into a trading post with a history of distributing blankets infected with smallpox and tuberculosis to Native Americans. The purportedly Christian proprietor refuses to serve Nobody because of his race, but asks the now-infamous killer Blake for an autograph on a “Wanted” poster. In response to this hypocrisy, Blake drives the pen through the proprietor’s hand, retorting, “There’s my autograph” before shooting and killing him. Blake feels, in that moment, like an avenging angel, but don’t mistake Dead Man for a film that glorifies violence or makes its protagonist the dubious sort of white savior that we’ve seen too often elsewhere.
With no future ahead of him and a deeper, more personal understanding of the genocide that enabled Manifest Destiny, Blake acts out of fury, but he is quickly shot again himself, and the rest of the film consists of Blake’s surreal, ceremonial journey into death. Jarmusch revises the movie western, but he knows he can’t revise history, and so Dead Man feels like a meditation rather than a rewrite. In many cultures, journeys “west” are metaphorical journeys toward death. The sun sets in the west, after all. Yet for many Americans, the “west” symbolizes freedom and progression. Jarmusch plays on both of these symbolic traditions, reminding us that in the American Old West, progress for some meant death for others. Confronted with the brevity of life and the brutality of history, Blake comes to a fuller and more profound understanding of the world that he once isolated himself from. And while he doesn’t survive the experience, his journey is the audience’s journey too. When the theater lights come up, the film’s potent examination of life and death in America is ours to ponder.