Examining a list of the greatest western films of all time, one is struck immediately by how many were produced before the year 1980. The numbers are remarkable, in fact, placing the genre’s heyday as sometime in the 1950s and 60’s when John Wayne and John Ford were titans.
Although some connoisseurs of the genre may argue that a considerable number of great westerns have come along since that arbitrary date of demarcation, it’s hard to argue that westerns have become more niche. Movie marquees advertising six-shooter matinees have been replaced by splashier subjects like science-fiction and fantasy.
Whether one agrees with that assessment, it’s obvious that during that peak era, westerns were simpler. They dealt with black hats and white hats, adventure stories that idealized a certain vision of our nation’s expansion.
What has come since 1980, is a more complicated western ideal. Movies like Meek’s Cutoff and Sisters Brothers deal in shadows. Led by female protagonists and tackling deeper topics, they represent a grand departure from revenge tales staple like lone gunmen and bandits.
Amid the transition in western aesthetic sits one of the genre’s greatest films. Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 post-modern Dead Man stands as an achievement in filmmaking, storytelling, driven by dynamic characters.
Dead Man As “Acid Western”
Esteemed film critic Pauline Kael first coined the term “acid western“, using it to describe Alejandro Jodorowski’s 1971 film, El Topo. According to Kael, an acid western runs counter to the traditional western storyline. Instead of the character’s westward journey leading ultimately to liberation and freedom, it represents a nightmare descent toward death.
Dead Man fits Kael’s description of an acid western to near perfection. The movie opens with Blake arriving in the town of Machine from Cleveland, Ohio. He’s a spit-polished accountant with a shine on his shoes. Clutching his bags, he watches curiously as decaying landscape streams past.
Once in town, that precipitous downward trend continues. Residents of Machine look upon Blake suspiciously. He finds the position he has traveled across the country for already filled. When he encounters a prostitute (who happens to sell flowers) it leads to a violent encounter that leaves Blake with a gunshot wound in the chest.
This isn’t a rejuvenating vision of the west. This is a descent into madness and death.
A Man Named Nobody
Among Jim Jarmusch’s greatest character is Nobody, the Native American who acts as William Blake’s guide over the course of the end of his life.
The figure cast by Nobody in Dead Man is as compelling as it is mercurial. He is dry and humorous, physically imposing and wise.
After being shot, Blake awakens on the outskirts of town. Out of his painful daze, he finds the imposing stranger attempting to dislodge the bullet from his chest. After working on the wounded man, Nobody informs him the wound is too close to his heart to save his life.
Realizing this, Blake becomes, in a sense, a walking dead man. Rather than leave him to die, however, Nobody offers to act as his guide into death. Using Native methods, they depart Machine for the Pacific Ocean.
The Dead Man’s Journey
Their journey to the coast is marked by a trail of dead and intense marauders. Although he is dying there is a price on Blake’s head.
The descent into madness is as strange as one might expect. Blake and Nobody encounter gunfights, the slaughter of innocents, a vision quest, and a penultimate encounter with a bigoted missionary, masterfully portrayed by Alfred Molina.
Much of Depp’s performance as William Blake bounces off of Gary Farmer’s wise and stoic Nobody. A keen observer of the world, Nobody is fond of quipping “stupid white people”. Always the outsider, Blake absorbs the western landscape and learns its many dangers from his guide.
Among Nobody’s most interesting aspects is his back story. A child born of lovers from warring tribes, he was abducted by British soldiers and brought to Europe as a model savage. During these travels, he was educated (which explains why Nobody recognizes Blake for the famed English poet) only to return home with stories of the white man and their world.
Nobody’s wisdom, rather than bringing him an exalted position in his community, makes him an outsider. He takes the name Xebeche, meaning: “He who talks loud, saying nothing.”
For all his worldly wisdom, he is essentially, Nobody.
Dead Man: The Legacy
In the twenty-five years since it’s theatrical release, Dead Man has drawn a considerable amount of praise from both the world of critics and avowed cinephiles.
Viewed in purely cinematic terms, Dead Man has been considered one of the best movies of its era because of its unique storytelling style and visual brilliance. The gritty black and white story is told at what can only be described as a hallucinogenic pace. Jarmusch and his Director of Photography, Robby Muller (who would later collaborate on Ghost Dog and Cigarettes and Coffee) rely on brief, clipped scenes. Some of the sequences run for a few seconds, only long enough to capture a line, a single murder, or an act of violence.
Long poetic storytelling, what one expects from western movies, is absent in Dead Man. In Jarmusch’s hands, the genre is grainy and dark. The opening landscape feels close in rather than wide open.
Native Americans In Dead Man
Dead Man is also revered for its realistic depiction of life in this era for Native Americans. The well-researched script resulted in a film that dispenses with stereotypes in favor of more nuanced details. Jarmusch’s attention to detail is second to none. Cree and Blackfoot characters speak their native languages. Their lines delivered intentionally without subtitles, as a way of communicating with members of those nations.
At the film’s climax, in the Makah village where Nobody bargains for a canoe to give Blake his ship burial, a now delirious Blake comes face to face with the ultimate victims of white man’s manifest destiny.
Are the Native American depicted as monsters? Do they regale the wounded man with nonsense chatter or lavish ceremony?
No. They do not. Instead of creating a more visually impressive (and perhaps inaccurate depiction) Jarmusch allows the villagers to look at him with a sense of pity. Like any other victim of a tragedy might.
Native Americans are human beings, a rarity in American cinema.
Did you watch “Dead Man”?
What did you think of the film? Where does it stack up with other films in Jim Jarmusch’s expansive catalog?
Did you think of it as a good western film?
Leave me a comment below and tell me what you thought.
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