Viewer Discretion Advised: Discussion of death and violence
Warning: Spoiler Alert (The end of the movie will be discussed)
Death is natural, and it’s something that all living things on this planet must face one day. Unfortunately, we humans are constantly aware that this will happen to us, and reasonably, it's a pretty scary concept. Nowadays, social media has allowed us to understand death on a more personal level by connecting people from all walks of life. Nevertheless, it’s still a difficult topic to breach. In real life, death occurs without all the fanfare we see in the movies. Regardless, film and the media can provide interesting interpretations about death, that possibly make it seem a little less scary. Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer, presents a satiric take on what it truly means to die.
The movie follows the story of William Blake (Johnny Depp), an accountant from Cleveland, Ohio, as he travels to the town of Machine for an accounting job at Dickinson's Metal Works. His plan to secure his position is quickly derailed after the men in charge of the firm forcibly send him away. He soon finds himself on the run with a bounty on his head, after murdering the son of his rich almost-boss. Taking refuge in the wilderness, he encounters a Native American man named Nobody (Gary Farmer), who guides him throughout most of the movie.
Blake kicks off his journey to death with a train ride from Cleveland to the town of Machine. The ride itself takes on a rather foreboding tone, as with each cut, the people surrounding Blake seem less and less friendly. The train’s coal shoveler approaches him and asks if he remembers being in a boat and watching the sky (this may not seem relevant now, but it’s important later). After interrogating Blake about where he’s from, the train worker proclaims, “[w]ell that doesn’t explain why you’ve come all the way out here, all the way out to hell.” He also tells Blake not to trust the written word of the men working at Dickinson's Metal Works and that he’s likely to find his own grave. If that isn’t foreshadowing, then I don’t know what is.
On one level, the train worker as a character seems to be paying homage to Charon the Ferryman, a well-known figure from Greek mythology, who transports the souls of the dead to the afterlife. Although the train worker is a little strange, he seems almost omniscient. Additionally, he shovels the coal that keeps the train running, a parallel to how Charon keeps the ferry moving. Furthermore, Charon is commonly depicted as dirty or unkempt, and the train worker is a coal shoveler, the evidence of which is caked into his face and skin. He is also clad in black, which is how Charon is commonly presented. This further alludes to the idea that Blake is soon to be on his way to the afterlife.
Once in the town of Machine, this motif of death is continued as Blake encounters various symbols of death, from caskets to obscene amounts of skulls (both animal and human).
After being turned away from Dickinson’s Metal Works, Blake meets a young woman named Thel and ends up going home with her. Charlie, Dickinson’s son, discovers the two together and ends up shooting Blake through Thel. Blake proceeds to fire back at Charlie, missing twice. There’s quite a bit to unpack in this scene, starting with the fact that Charlie is clad in all black, perhaps because he is both literally and figuratively the harbinger of death for Blake. Additionally, Blake shoots the three bullets in the shape of a triangle. Three becomes a recurring pattern within the movie and both triangles and the number three commonly stand for birth, life, and death. This could be referencing the fact that Blake’s life is approaching its end.
In his scramble to get away, Blake falls from the window, in a scene that vaguely calls to mind a fall from innocence. His life will never be the same, and his less than graceful landing proves it. With him fall the white paper roses scattered around Thel’s room, symbolizing a loss of purity and innocence.
Throughout the rest of the movie, Blake is forced to grapple with his approaching demise, as well as the fact that he is being hunted. Making his way through Maslow’s 5 stages of grief, he eventually lands at acceptance and fully embraces his fate. Along the way, he leaves behind a trail of carnage, but he also arguably becomes a more rounded and aware individual.
Blake grows to respect and understand Native American culture through the time he spends with Nobody, and he also gains an appreciation for nature. Nobody even sends Blake off in a canoe and dresses him in Native American funeral clothing. He drifts away looking up at the sky, calling the audience back to the conversation that he had with the coal shoveler at the beginning of the movie.
While Dead Man might not necessarily remove the fear factor from dying, it anchors itself in death from the start, focusing more on the journey than its aftermath.
The film has quite a bit of violence and multiple scenes that are recommended for mature audiences. Additionally, it touches on Indigenous culture, and although it attempts to reverse stereotypes and criticize the idea of the white Wild West, I cannot say how well it does that. Generally, however, it is regarded to be one of the more nuanced representations of Native American culture created by a non-Native writer and director.
The 2-hour-long movie tackles a lot of interesting ideas and themes. It is also fully shot in black and white, and the music, composed by Neil Young, adds a lot to the meaning and intensity of certain scenes. Overall, I would highly recommend giving it a watch. Dead Man is currently available for streaming on HBO Max.