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Film / Dead Man

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"It is preferable not to travel with a dead man."
Henri Michaux

Dead Man is an acid/existential Western written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, released in 1995. The protagonist, played by Johnny Depp, is an out-of-work accountant from Cleveland named William Blake. He goes to a frontier town on the promise of a job, but once there finds the position already taken. He gets briefly mixed up in a love triangle, kills the son of the most powerful man in town in self-defense and is forced to run for his life with a bullet in his chest.

While trying to evade the bounty hunters and marshals who are after him he meets Nobody, a solitary and erudite Native American who- upon hearing his name- believes him to be the wandering spirit of the English poet William Blake, even though the name is purely coincidental.

Not to be confused with the DC Comics character of the same name, and not to be confused with that one really Gorny anime about an amusement park prison.

Dead Man provides examples of:

  • Bounty Hunter: Three of them, all insane to varying degrees and killed off in inverse order to the height of their insanity.
  • Catchphrase: Nobody's is "Stupid fucking white man!" He even gets to say it in Jarmusch's next film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
  • City Slicker: The protagonist is a quintessential tenderfoot. At first.
  • Creepy Crossdresser: Iggy Pop's character wears a woman's dress in the wilderness, cluing the viewer in that the trio to which he belongs is deranged.
  • Creepy Monotone: Crispin Glover rambles through a strange philosophical rant with little inflection. It's just as unsettling to William Blake as it is to the audience.
  • Culture Clash:
    • Blake is out of sorts as a city slicker in the frontier. He's even more out of depth when traipsing about the wilderness with Nobody.
    • Nobody has this in his background as a Native boy who was raised by whites.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Shot in beautiful black-and-white, like an Ansel Adams photo.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Cole shoots Johnny dead for telling him "Fuck you", and later kills and eats Conway just because Conway annoyed him by trying to make idle conversation with him by asking what race his family was.
  • Don't Think, Feel: Nobody tells Blake that he might see better without his glasses. Much of Nobody's dialogue in the film is in this vein. "You don't stop the clouds by building a ship." His favorite poet is William Blake and Jarmusch felt that many of Blake's aphorisms sounded similar to Native American spiritualism.
  • Downer Ending: Shouldn't come as a surprise given the film's title and the fact that the protagonist is mortally wounded by the end of the first act.
  • Foreshadowing: The trainman warns Blake, "I wouldn't trust no words written down on no piece of paper, especially from no Dickinson out in the town of Machine. You're just as likely to find your own grave!" before a shot rings out.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: Blake is surrounded by trigger-happy psychos.
  • Exact Words: Blake is asked at point who he's traveling with. His reply, "Nobody", is completely accurate and completely misleading.
  • Gorn: Deliberately subverted. Scenes of violence are staged as brief, awkward, and nausea-inducing; the camera lingers sadly over the outcome.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Thel is an ex-hooker turned paper flower maker and takes Blake in when he has nowhere to go. It turns out to be a bad idea for both of them.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Cole Wilson has the reputation of eating his parents. He later feasts on human flesh again.
  • Injun Country: A big theme. Blake looks out on the typical tepee camps of the Plains Indians while aboard the train and eventually travels through the Injun Country of the Northwest, which looks much different from the Plains Indians. The Indians are neither romanticized nor stigmatized.
  • Instant Death Bullet: Thel is shot in the chest by Charlie and she immediately falls over dead without any final death throes.
  • Mad Oracle: The train fireman makes some prophetic statements at the beginning of the film.
  • Magical Native American: Nobody exists in the film to escort a white man on his spirit journey, but this is justified by Nobody's fleshed-out background and beliefs.
  • Magic Realism: Blake's trip to the ocean is basically a spiritual journey into the afterlife taking place in the real world. Even before Blake gets shot, the film presents a dream-like, otherworldly level of reality.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Nothing in the film is outright supernatural, but pretty much all of it is reealllly weird.
  • Meaningful Name: William Blake, Dickinson, and Nobody, most notably.
  • Mind Screw: From the very first scene to the very last moment.
  • Mutual Kill: Nobody and Cole Wilson at the end.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: The town of Machine is just as soulless an industrial town as you'd imagine.
  • Noble Savage: Nobody describes how he was raised and presented in white society as one of these.
  • Not in This for Your Revolution: "Look, I've had it up to here with this Indian malarkey."
  • Pinkerton Detective: Two of them, both of whom get killed.
  • Popcultural Osmosis: Most of the "Indian sayings" Nobody uses are actually quotations from the poet William Blake.
  • Pop-Star Composer: Neil Young provides a soundtrack that's entirely improvised on highly distorted electric guitar.
  • Proverbial Wisdom: Nobody, who serves as an Eccentric Mentor to Blake, often speaks in cryptic sayings which sound very much like Native American version of Zen koans, but turn out to be quotations from William Blake.
  • Psycho for Hire: Cole Wilson, the cannibal bounty hunter. He's so bad that he kills his two infamous colleagues just for annoying him, and eats the second.
  • Rank Scales with Asskicking: Mr. Dickinson, the boss of Machine. He seems to carry a shotgun around with him at all times and even uses it to threaten the three baddest bounty hunters in the west into taking his assignment. This was Robert Mitchum's final role.
  • River of Insanity: The whole trip is a journey into the madness of the American soul. Blake must be put on a boat to cleanse him and prepare him for the journey to the afterlife as the surroundings get weirder and darker and more dangerous the further he goes into the wilderness. And then to top it off, there's the opening railroad journey, piloted by Crispin Glover:
    Trainman: Look out the window. And doesn't this remind you of when you were in the boat, and then later than night, you were looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the landscape, and you think to yourself, "Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat... is still?" And also... where is it that you're from?
    Blake: [describes his journey]
    Trainman: Machine! (Scare Chord) That's the end of the line!
  • Running Gag: Nobody is always asking for tobacco. Whenever he asks Blake, Blake responds, "I don't smoke."
  • Scenery Porn: Even in black and white, the woods of the Pacific Northwest are still gorgeous.
  • Shout-Out: At the trade outpost, two of the numerous wanted posters are for "Rex Proddert" and "Red Holmes", two characters mentioned passingly in episodes of the classic Western long-runner Gunsmoke.
  • Terrible Trio: The three hunters.
  • Took a Level in Badass: William starts as a clueless City Slicker, and becomes a deadly Gunslinger.
  • Your Eyes Can Deceive You: Nobody steals William Blake's glasses: "Perhaps you will see better without them."
  • You Talk Too Much!: Cole Wilson, a man of few words, lets his pistol say this when Conway Twill's incessant yapping finally gets to be too much.
  • The Western: Acid Western.
  • What a Senseless Waste of Human Life
    Wilson: Looks like a goddamn religious icon.
  • World Half Empty: Westernized society is shown to be corrupt and cruel, epitomized by the awful industrial town of "Machine." Unusually, Native society isn't idealized in comparison.