Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is a Western — albeit one fed through a chain of distortion pedals as long as a passenger train — that prospects a large strip of the Western canon. It appears to borrow from Kafka in the imagining of its initial scenes: Crispin Glover plays a stoker who abandons his boiler station to impose himself on the story’s ostensible hero; like The Castle‘s K., Jarmusch’s protagonist arrives in a mysterious scribe-filled anteroom bearing a matter-of-fact offer letter that no one seems intent on honoring. Pointing further back to the age of the epic, the film features a character who calls himself Nobody (Gary Farmer). There is nothing so fantastic as a Cyclops roaming the parched terrain of Jarmusch’s mythic West, but Nobody nonetheless dispatches his lumbering white-man enemies with efficiency and cunning. And, lest I forget, the protagonist of the film, played by an appropriately woozy-looking Johnny Depp, is named William Blake.
Dead Man, which screens tonight at BAM, is rife with literary allusions and also indulges in the heavily referential namings and mystical-poetical pronouncements that have become recognizable Jarmusch hallmarks.
But, unlike Broken Flowers‘ Don Johnston, for example, the name “William Blake” is a good deal more than a cosmic joke; later in the film, Blake’s alignment with the English poet becomes an integral part of his developing outlaw persona, and he deadpans despairing lines from the vision-prone writer’s corpus, created at the heart of industrializing England. The original proponent of Blake the poet is Nobody, who routinely insists the celebrated Romantic and the slightly effete man from Cleveland, headed West after an abortive engagement and the death of his parents, are one and the same. After fleeing the scene of a shooting, Blake becomes a wanted man and Nobody, a Plains Indian in an altogether more complex state of exile, often plays the part of his accomplice. For all their miscommunication, the two seem to represent a more or less productive intermingling of two very different cultures, their acts of violence necessary defenses against those who — like the deranged adherents of the Good Book played by Iggy Pop and Alfred Molina — have erected their rigid belief systems as crude barricades against the world, and who think nothing of scorching the earth as they travel it.
Whether BAM is programming Dead Man on the unofficial beginning of the Fourth of July weekend as a political statement, I can’t say for sure, but I think I like what they’re up to. The film’s American landscapes, rendered in astonishing black and white by frequent Jarmusch collaborator Robby Müller, are terrifyingly beautiful, littered as they are with smoldering encampments and animal corpses in various states of rot. The town of Machine, where Blake first disembarks, is filthier still, the home to grizzled, bigoted men who comprehend the profit motive but not the rudiments of the alphabet.
It’s also an apt time to reassess Dead Man given its invocation in many favorable notices for this year’s Jarmusch, The Limits of Control. At the most basic level, both films follow difficult-to-read protagonists as they encounter others along mysterious but certain paths. I think the woollier journey of Dead Man is much better suited to the template than the Zen ropes course of The Limits of Control, which I found to be an overlong exercise (a sort of aestheticization of violence without the violence) that falters badly when it ruptures its closed circuit at the end to declare the GOP the enemy of urban bohemia. Not that the streamlined Spanish settings of the newer film would have accommodated an extra dose of wildness, but I do think Jarmusch’s greatest asset, his very wry sense of humor, only really weaves its way organically into his most open-ended films. Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law also come to mind, but even those are outstripped by Dead Man, in my book also one of the very best American features of the 1990s.