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Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch) 1995

 

    How much of a difference can a single shot make while watching a film? Itís an interesting question, to be sure, since films gain much of their power through the editorial process, and in most movies the answer seems to be ďNot much.Ē Still, there several are examples that come to mind (The Crying Game, Beau Travail, Sleepaway Camp) where one image turns an entire movie on its head, and Jim Jarmuschís black and white western Dead Man contains one that had precisely this effect for me, without any of the ostentatious surprise that fuels the other examples that I cited. With only a few minutes to spare, Jarmusch incorporates a point of view setup that turns what felt like a somewhat self-indulgent meditation on death and dying into a searing condemnation of the very ideals that America was built on and a pointed critique of where itís going. Thereís no explicit editorial underlining in this image, which shows the intrusion of the white manís machinery into the Native Americansí environment. It contains no dialogue, action, or camera trickery, but it still crystallizes the concerns of the film into something tangible. Maybe Iím slow on the uptake, taking almost two hours to understand what the director had been tiptoeing around all along, nonetheless the realization hit me like a ton of bricks because suddenly everything that came before seemed relevant, and the distance between current events and the filmís 1870ís setting immediately dissipated.

 

    Ostensibly a genre picture, Dead Man is no ordinary western because it has a festering resentment boiling under the surface that seems to resent the presence of all of its white characters. Through his radical revisionism, Jarmusch satirizes the ideals of so many of filmdomís classics and gets exceptionally close to making a grand statement about our capitalist expansionism that actually holds water. The culture clash that fuels the subtext behind many Westerns becomes the main theme here with a vengeance. While that initially seemed noble but ultimately inadequate subject matter for this film which occasionally feels like a meandering exercise in style, at the filmís end, however, Jarmusch inserts a noticeably unnatural contraption into the frame, suggesting that the white manís culture is as transient as the Native one, and that modern American culture is as capable to drifting away into a sea of oblivion as any other. What becomes shockingly apparent from this association is that the myth of the cowboy was really a corporate creation, fabricated so people felt better about the rape of the land and the natives. That this sentiment is stated within the context of a western is even more remarkable.

 

    William Blake, Johnny Deppís Cincinnati-bred avenger, isnít a typical action hero, but becomes a poet, writing with violence, because of his understanding of a situation that most others seem content to ignore. At the filmís start, heís more interested in a game of solitaire than his environment, and his vocation (accountant) seems diametrically opposed to all things spiritual. As the story proceeds and his awareness increases, he dons face paint and taps into a natural mysticism that he had previously ignored, and his delirium seems equally spurned on by his quasi-religious experience and his nausea. Wounded by a bullet in the chest, and constantly inching closer to becoming the Dead Man of the title, he moves farther from the reality he understands, yet seems to grow closer to a deep understanding of things. If the filmís characterizations of white men as consumerist monsters and Native Americans as enlightened victims feels a bit simplistic, one need only consider the infinite slanderous alternative stereotypes that previous westerns have offered up before such generalizations seem downright reasonable. What saves the film from descending into a bleeding-heart celebration of its own cultural enlightenment is its insistence that Blake, despite his insight, still cannot be assimilated into the Native culture, at least while alive.  He may befriend a native, but Jarmusch never condescends to his characters by suggesting a Dances With Wolves-style adaptation into their way of life.

 

    The insertion of actual ideas into the film suddenly made me much more sympathetic toward the Native Americans in the film, and made the somber, elegiac tone forgivable and downright appropriate. Whatís most shocking about Dead Man, and specifically Jarmuschís involvement in the production is that itís completely irony-free because itís so convinced that it has something potent to say. All of the directorís earlier films seemed mostly interested in the world only as a stage on which he could set his mocking, but here you sense deep humanist concern. Jarmuschís global conscience thankfully doesnít result in a preachy film, however, and as I said, the filmís major theme doesnít fully emerge until near the end. Most of the running time is spent callously observing the ignorance inherent in the conflicts of the Wild West, with a slowly dawning feeling that there must be an alternative. When that alternative finally arrives, bundled in a single shot and a mess of implications, itís nothing less than a revelation, for both Blake and the audience.

 

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04/24/02 

Jeremy Heilman