Analysis: Jarmusch’s “Dead Man”

Jim Jarmusch’s black-and-white film, Dead Man, remains a “cult classic,” apparently due to the fact that Johnny Depp played the lead role and his fans are fiercely loyal. The reviews in 1995 ranged from two thumbs up to two thumbs down. Even those who loved it for their own reasons were not sure whether it was a Western, Western parody, anti-Western, or some other kind of Western they had not seen before. The truth is that it was a commentary on Western society given by a dead man, a dead poet, via Johnny Depp’s character whose name is, not coincidentally: William Blake. 

The movie is a surrealistic work, a continuation of the surreal works of famous English poet-painter, William Blake (1757-1827), and particularly his 1793 book: America—a Prophecy. Clearly, Blake considered the American Revolution to be the beginning of a new world that held promise for liberation from the oppressed and repressed society of England and Europe. In Dead Man, the just-deceased Blake rides a train into the American dream that had already become a nightmare by the early 1800s. In fact, in the opening scene in the passenger car we hear reference to the slaughter of millions of buffaloes the prior year, so we know that the time-frame is the 1820s. 

At the time of his death in 1827, irreligious poet Blake had been working on a series of engravings for a re-publication of Dante’s book: The Divine Comedy. So, not surprisingly, the state of America that the deceased and “amnesiac-in-death” Blake visits in his afterlife is colored by the theme of Dante’s book in tandem with his own America—a Prophecy. The Indian (played by Gary Farmer) who studied Blake’s poetry after capture and schooling by white people, serves as leader-in-the-hellish-wilderness to Blake (Depp), just as the Roman poet, Virgil, led Dante through Hell and Purgatory. The movie is a dark comedy on more than one level. 

The America that Blake experiences is murderous, racist, morally decadent, greedy, and otherwise degenerate. In this intended “land of liberty,” it is ironic that there is no sign of an expansion of the European Renaissance: no masterpieces of art, architecture, or musical composition. Everything is crude, unrefined, colorless. This is further hinted at in scenes where Jarmusch uses the names of modern-day people in the music industry—who are less than Mozarts or Beethovens—and depicts them as unwashed, uneducated, rude, violent, and moronic. Many viewers have wondered why Neil Young’s music score for the film seems less than masterful; it is part of the message that the state of the America that dead-man Blake is witnessing is (and remains) uninspired and dissonant. 

Numerous clues to the meaning of the screenplay are sprinkled throughout, beginning with Johnny Depp’s character’s name: William Blake. The story is peppered with blatantly obvious as well as subtle references to Blake’s poetry. Yet, we are surprised that no film critic seemed to “get it.” Blake is traveling in an America that parallels the purgatorial land of the dead, where “the dead bury the dead” (when they bother to do any burial). The scene where Depp finds the freshly killed baby deer lying on the ground and lies down beside it alludes to Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” The Indian pointedly refers to Depp’s accountant character as being the William Blake and, at one point, sees Depp as just a skull and bones—the poet in death offering the viewer his “account.” 

In the opening scene the question is posed: “Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?” This alludes to and connects with the ending scene to create an endless loop, an eternal quality. From beginning to end, Depp’s character is dead.

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One Response to “Analysis: Jarmusch’s “Dead Man””

  1. Gregory Younger Says:

    Excellent summation! Thank you!

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