Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For January we’re celebrating the work of godfather of independent film Jim Jarmusch. Read the rest of our coverage here.
The Western had become fossilized by the mid 1990s. Before Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992, treated and presented as a send-off to the genre and the archetypes who populated it, interest in its auspices and become the province of hobbyists and die-hards. Westerns were what you made when you had no one to impress. In the 70s production was bifurcated: counter-cultural oddities like McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972), Greaser’s Palace (1972), and Dirty Little Billy (1972), duked it out with the stiff-jointed likes of Burt Kennedy’s The Train Robbers (1973), Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys (1972), and the Westerns of Andrew V. McLaglen. One wanted to valorize the Old West and the classic Westerns that had become canonical, and others wanted to burn them down and build something grotesque and diseased in its place.
By the time Heaven’s Gate debuted in 1980, failing spectacularly and signifying the end of new Hollywood (though its reputation has been largely reclaimed), the thing had lost its mainstream appeal. Horror Westerns began to appear (1987’s Near Dark, 1988’s Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat), further proof of the horse opera’s ghettoization. It was now just one more exercise for directors to try when working their way to the big time, nothing more than a curious costume to try on when they’d made a name for themselves.
With Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch was far from the only director to try to make a Western in the ‘90s. There were a host of tourists — directors as disparate as Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Guest, Sam Raimi, and Mario Van Peebles — who threw on a saddle and a ten-gallon hat before trying out something else. Jarmusch had to be the least expected, however. He’d made his name making low-key and off kilter character studies. He’d have cinematographer Robby Müller set up an unblinking medium-wide shot, and then watch his characters slowly get on each other’s wavelengths.
After 1989’s Mystery Train and 1991’s Night on Earth, which fit in as much unobtrusive observation into one film as he could (to wit, eight total vignettes featuring everyone from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Matti Pellonpää talking up a gale), it was perhaps only natural he’d want to give his usual methods a wide berth next time at bat. Dead Man was all that and more. Though recognizably Jarmuschian in its halting rhythm, poetic fixations (even then Jarmusch’s use of identical rhymes had become a regular part of his filmmaking), and Müller’s scorching black and white photography, this was the wildest film the punk laureate of Akron had yet made.
Dead Man opens on a deliberately alienating and off-putting note. Johnny Depp, fresh-faced and still impossibly young looking (his perfect skin glows like a pre-Code starlet), plays an accountant named William Blake from Ohio (just like Jarmusch). He’s on his way to a mythic frontier town called Machine. His journey takes hours, and Jarmusch and editor Jay Rabinowitz keep fading to black and letting the strange percussive guitar music of composer Neil Young do most of the talking.
Though recognizably Jarmuschian in its halting rhythm, poetic fixations, and Müller’s scorching black and white photography, this was the wildest film the punk laureate of Akron had yet made.
It’s only when the soot-caked railroad fireman (Crispin Glover, looking like Depp’s cracked mirror image, down to the coal blotting out his white skin) appears in front of him and seems to read his thoughts does he have any kind of human interaction. The unnerving interaction ends with the burly men in the train shooting buffalo from the train window, encouraged by the United States government. We’re almost ten minutes in and the movie already feels deliberately opaque and openly hostile.
Blake arrives at the factory at which he believed he was to begin working only to discover the job’s been given to someone else. Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in one of his last roles, still nearly as beautiful as Depp – everyone here is like a different kind of reflection of the young lead), the owner of the factory tells him to get lost at gunpoint. The plot actually starts when a romantic encounter with a young woman (Mili Avital) ends with her jealous paramour (Gabriel Byrne), and coincidentally, the son of the factory owner, bursting in on them. A bullet lodged in his heart, Blake leaves both their bodies behind and heads into the wilderness.
Dickinson puts a bounty on Blake’s head and sends three killers (Michael Wincott, Eugene Byrd, and Lance Henriksen) after him. Blake happens into the care of a native who prefers to be called Nobody (Gary Farmer) who believes the bleeding accountant is the William Blake, the poet and painter. The misunderstanding will lead to their slow bonding as the body count grows all around them and Nobody prepares Blake to die.
Genre always seemed to both open Jarmusch up to the world he missed when filming his more conventional dramas. Even when he traveled to Rome and Paris for Night on Earth, he only viewed the towns from the inside of a taxi cab. Shooting his Western in the uniquely spare Arizona hinterland, it was like he had gone outside for the first time. Not even the New Orleans swamps of Down By Law (1986) looked as forbidding and photogenic.
Making a Western also allowed Jarmusch to drift further and more freely than ever before. He follows photographic whims, no longer beholden to the notion that something had to happen when the camera was on, even if it was as trivial as moving from one room to the next. His filmmaking grows wild and finally as poetic as his construction had always been. Shots of starlit skies, dead men’s heads on an extinguished campfire (Henriksen: “Look like a goddamn religious icon”), Depp lying on the ground with a dead fawn, a pony galloping on a riverbank, a charred skeleton still fuming in a raided campsite, do little but add to the pervasive feeling of doom. The film, like Depp, takes its sweet time contemplating the infinite while dispatching all and sundry to its gates.
The film’s moldering symbols and living death in Müller’s velvety soft monochrome gives the film a look bigger than it appears to be on first watch. The film grows mammoth when its collection of unrelated murders and betrayals have finally come to a halt. The look of the film owes less to the paintings of William Blake and more to the kind of tacky and awful Americana you’d find at a Western theme park.
Scrawled on the walls in the waiting line for a log flume called Vulture Falls, you’ll find these overripe and obvious macabre illustrations of the treachery of the Old West. That may sound pejorative, but it’s precisely its obviousness that gives it power. Not even the horror Westerns of the ‘70s and ‘80s approached the eeriness of Jarmusch’s boldly elemental Western landscape.
It’s easy to think of the film’s tableaux and misremember it as a supernatural slasher movie for a second or two before the shape of the whole comes flooding back. Jarmusch was the perfect fit for the genre simply because he needed to spell things out, which meant finally writing in bold type what had always been just below the surface of the Western as a genre. He never cared for subtext, found no use for it – fitting for a man who’d earlier flirted with noise rock and avant-jazz before picking up a camera – and by simply having Gary Farmer say “stupid white man” and parade the many faces of a First Nation tribe in woozy double exposure, he was doing away with the genre’s usual othering.
The Western, like the West, never really belonged to white men. Dead Man didn’t give it back to the natives it had long vilified, but it did make it impossible to make new Westerns without reckoning with the genocide that had long been the unspoken prologue to every gunslinger’s odyssey. The land was a graveyard waiting for bodies, and the Western would henceforth have to admit its part as undertaker.