Dead Man; The Backwards Journey of the Anti-Hero

“Know thyself” is part of the DNA of westerns—it’s what compels the hero to protect society or to fight it, to escape into the sunset or marry the storekeeper’s daughter. It’s the foundation of literary conflicts as old as the hills that Gilgamesh climbed in his search for immortality.

That’s why I doff my cowboy hat (red, not black or white) to the acid western Dead Man (1995), directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Johnny Depp and the excellent Gary Farmer, with cameos by Robert Mitchum, Iggy Pop, and Billy Bob Thornton, and a haunting soundtrack by Neil Young. Jarmusch’s movie is not just a western out of a badass acid trip. It’s not just a revisionist western. It’s the anti-western, a negative image of the positive journey toward self that westerns portray.

A young man, William Blake, goes West to earn his fortune, but the journey on the sooty, clanging train degenerates into weirdness—Crispin Glover making cryptic pronouncements, buffalo rifles banging over Depp’s head—and the nightmarish town he arrives in, Machine, is as frightening and ugly as the real Old West probably was. His (mis)fortune is to be found by a prostitute’s ex-boyfriend in her bed, and badly wounded by the bullet that kills her, he shoots in self-defense, killing the ex. He escapes into the wilderness, to be found by half-Blood–half-Blackfoot Nobody. “What is your name, stupid white man?” Nobody asks. And, believing William Blake to be the poet Blake, he vows to bring him to the waters to cross into the spirit world.

The two travel together, Blake half-conscious at times and at others finding himself in situations where he must “absorb” the projections that others thrust upon him: dangerous outlaw, poet, spirit, sexual prey. Blake’s physical body and actions becomes more and more like the outlaw he is purported to be. (“Do you know my poetry?” he asks before he shoots two bounty hunters.) But as he travels farther west, he knows himself less and less, drifting from his consciousness first from loss of blood, confusion, and fear (most unheroic) then literally, in a Makah canoe on the Pacific Ocean, into the spirit world.

Depp’s anti-hero is assisted by a character too complicated to be heroic in the reel-life sense of the word, Gary Farmer’s Nobody. Jim Jarmusch stated, “In regards to Dead Man, I just wanted to make an Indian character who wasn’t either A) the savage that must be eliminated, the force of nature that’s blocking the way for industrial progress, or B) the noble innocent that knows all and is another cliché. I wanted him to be a complicated human being.”

A complicated human being in a western? Yowza. A truly subversive revision.

Tomorrow: Top 10 Revisionist Westerns

2 comments to Dead Man; The Backwards Journey of the Anti-Hero

  • cupcake42

    Awesome review!!!!!
    Johnny Depp as a Wounded Hero?
    A backward’s hero’s journey?
    It doesn’t get any better than this…

  • bucko

    Hey cupcake42–it’s one of my faves. A touch of a downer, but it’s so beautiful, and so truthful in a black-humored way to the Wild West, I can’t help watching it again and again.

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