‘Dead Man’: Poetry in Sound, Sight, and Meaning
To coincide with Dead Man’s 22nd anniversary, a look back at one of the most touching and atmospheric “anti-Western” stories committed to film.
With the film’s mixture of imagery, sound, dialogue and acting, it’s not that far-fetched to equate Dead Man (1995) to poetry. The plot is simple and exists mainly as a very hollow means of transportation — though that isn’t to discredit the writing, but rather to commend the forms and shapes it takes in order to convey its emotional state to the viewer.
On its surface, the plot follows timid William Blake (Johnny Depp). With no money or family left, Blake makes his way to the dirty, horseshit-laden, industrious town of Machine (“The end of the line”) only to find that the job offered to him has already been taken by someone else. Mocked, ridiculed, and facing rock bottom, Blake’s quest for momentary, careless reprieve from a tiny bottle of alcohol ends him up in the room of a woman: a beautiful paper-flower seller by the name of Thel. Their rendezvous in bed is cut short by the woman’s fiancé’s surprise entry, an encounter that ends up in a clumsy shootout that leaves Thel dead and Blake mortally wounded, with the fiancé left bleeding to death after a bullet to his neck.
Blake, knocking on death’s door, is found by an eccentric Native American outcast and wanderer named Nobody (Gary Farmer). To Blake’s confusion, Nobody proclaims him a spiritual offspring, or perhaps the literal reincarnation of the classical poet by the same name. Having a deep personal connection to a specific poem written by the late artist, Nobody views this as a sign, and makes it his mission to help this incarnation of Blake ascend to the next stage of life. All the while, a trio of bounty hunters and others attempt to track down Blake, who has had a bounty put on his head by the dead fiancé’s father, the industrious and powerful John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum)
Different kinds of lonely, downtrodden outsiders forming spiritual bonds in friendship and empathy is a recurring theme in the films of Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Only Lovers Left Alive), a filmmaker considered an auteur of the medium by many. In Dead Man, perhaps more than any of his other films, this theme is reflected in the aesthetic makeup of his West just as much as the characters.“Dead Man” (1995, Miramax Films)
While visually stunning in its grainy, sharp, and at times harshly contrasted black-and-white appearance, all of this might not be as memorably framed if it weren’t for Neil Young’s otherworldly score. It’s hard to image the kind of film this would’ve been without it.
Young’s score is a cycling drone of rough, raw guitar that punctuates scene transitions. In certain areas it offers a soundscape that better defines the desolate climate of both the scenery and the characters within it than words or even visuals perhaps ever could, providing a presence that applies ambient and mood music logic to the unyielding electricity of a plugged-in guitar. The score is made equal parts haunting and relaxing as a result; it continues throughout with the flow of a poem, fitting well within the context of the film. At one point, a tender moment prompts a shift to a gentler organ, perhaps one of the few respites in the story of William Blake. Young’s input here works best as a sort of incidental score, stalking around the confines of the narrative.
In comparison and keeping within the theme of the “anti-Western” genre, Young’s score is reminiscent of the selections of Leonard Cohen songs used in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. While Altman used those songs as an amendment after the fact, and Young’s score was instead part of the creation of Dead Man, both serve a similar thematic purpose in stitching together the feeling of the film as unorthodox music “outside” the periodic appearance of each respective film.
Maybe fitting in its own way, the album release of Dead Man’s score is reorganized to present the music in a more accessible album format. It’s additionally inter-stitched with different takes of the dialogue from the film than those used in the final cut, and includes Johnny Depp’s William Blake reciting the poetry of William Blake, as well as a revving car motor. In a way, it does what the film does with the score in an inverse fashion.“Dead Man” (1995, Miramax Films)
Scope and Circumstance
The unbiased beauty of circumstance plays a major part in Dead Man’s rather simplistic, direct story.
While the revisionist Western genre concerns itself with telling stories that change the exact, accurate history of America’s wild west for dramatic effect, Dead Man doesn’t exactly fit well in this genre beyond a superficial descriptor. This is indicative of most transcendental films; the truest form of Dead Man is in the scope of an isolated story about circumstances, acted out as a subtle epic. That is to say that the industrial-era west in Dead Man acts as a well-made costume that doesn’t necessarily reflect on all aspects of the story. It’s a setting, but it does not alter the core themes. Similarly, anything that can be derived from the film beyond what we might not know as literal fact from the director/writer’s mouth as an explicit explanation of intent is pure contrivance. The film focuses on the poetry of circumstance, and sloshes it around with themes of identity and purpose.
Attaching a diatribe of sociopolitical messages is a fool’s task, and worth ignoring altogether if you ever come across it. Making this kind of association would be a meandering belittlement of the emotionally focused narrative that Dead Man is more concerned about conveying, which is the most salient attribute of the film.“Dead Man” (1995, Miramax Films)
Dead Man is perhaps one of the most emotionally-leading and personal modern stories set to the falling era of the West around. Set in an era where the wildness was becoming tainted by factory smoke, buffalo were massacred to the point of near-extinction, and the Natives of America, as well as their traditions, were reduced to smoldering remains, it fits perfectly with the narrative of self-discovery in a harsh world.
It’s a story of identity set in a seemingly post-apocalyptic America, where the attributes of the end-times are just as outside of the players as the players are to it, while influencing the overall feel. With Neil Young’s score haunting the viewer throughout the runtime of the film, Dead Man commits itself to the world of film in a way that reminds you just what the medium is capable of at its best.
Dead Man has recently received a beautifully remastered Blu-ray/DVD release courtesy of the Criterion Collection, which I implore you to look out for. The film celebrates its 22nd anniversary on May 10th. As a bonus, here’s a 2-minute excerpt from behind-the-scenes footage of Neil Young composing the film’s score, included on the Criterion release.