In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This week we look at an enigmatic cult western from Jim Jarmusch, Dead Man.
As a film fan, I’ve always had a problem squaring some older films with what one might consider outdated subject matter. How much misogyny is actually wrapped up in the femme fatale archetype? Queer coding villains being enshrined in the Hays Code? Those are all things that there are varying degrees of nuance to and I love many films that utilise such tropes, but I’ve always had persistent problems with classic westerns. I just tend to get my hackles raised at any kind of mythologising in pictures, which is part of why I found Ben Affleck’s The Town particularly obnoxious. There’s only so much ‘gah, this town is so great, look at me I’m from Boston and I rob banks this town is the best isn’t it amazing’ before my stomach starts to turn sour. There’s also the fact that out of all the archetypes I’ve mentioned so far, the classic Western is the least likely to contain empowered women who don’t rely on John Wayne spinning a shotgun onto his back to save the day, at least most femme fatales feel like they’ve actually lived in a world that resembles reality and are attempting to navigate a way through it. It’s just all so macho, it’s full of the kind of stoic toxically masculine men I’d cross the road to avoid. There is also, of course, the whole, romanticisation of genocide against the Native Americans that would, if it was committed by any other nation, be broadly referred to as a genocide, thing. Broadly, it’s full of such specific filmmaking ideas to convey a period of time that only existed for a few decades, that I really struggle to not find the vast majority of them tired. This is why I find revisionist westerns like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or Bone Tomahawk so interesting. They take this mythologising around a dark blot in America’s history and investigate it in really interesting ways. Even something that at the point it was made was the logical end point of this lineage to the extent that it barely resembled a western in all but tone, location, and archetypes, No Country For Old Men, deals with a kind of mephitic, abstract representation of some kind of buried American spirit, who is of course, not white. No Country For Old Men could realistically be read as a symbolic treatise on cultural rage and revenge. After all, its thesis, most strongly in the novel but there in the film seems to be that there is an evil to America that has always been there. I’ve even been a big fan of Spaghetti Westerns, especially as an Italian genre film fan. Films in this filone like A Fistful of Dollars, Four of the Apocalypse, and If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death show industrial America’s birth not as a mythological place and era for stoic manly heroes to save damsels per se, but as a place where people are moulded this way not to fill some kind of archetypical rhetoric that comes from the body and spirit of manifest destiny, but just to survive in a bloodthirsty world. This comes to its logical conclusion on Sergio Leone’s epic masterpiece of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly which analyzes America as a place who’s very constitution is founded in bloody conflict.
So that’s a lot of talk without really talking about the movie I’m here to talk about, which is Dead Man. Dead Man is the ne plus ultra in a strain of westerns called ‘acid westerns’, the most famous of which is probably Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, (which I’ve written about here before), or in novel form Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. In these stories, westerns meet surrealism, they exaggerate the archetypes we’re used to to the point where we begging to find truth in these archaic symbols colliding with each other in a dreamscape, or in the case of Dead Man, the space between states of existence.
Dead Man follows Johnny Depp as William Blake (not that one), who travels to the furthest town he can, spending all his savings soon after being left by a fiance, to take up a job which he doesn’t find, he then sleeps with a woman whose lover shoots them both, he shoots the aggressor, and is now being hunted by Robert Mitchum for his murder. This is the first point; this film has an insane cast, and running through who each character is will easily convey to you the other main appeal of this movie. So, let’s go. Gary Farmer plays a native American guide through the spirit world for William Blake, who mistakes him for real life poet William Blake. Crispin Glover is a very threatening man who greets Johnny Depp as his train begins to enter the town where the events of the film transpire, he speaks in riddles, has a darkened face, and knows details of Depp’s past that will later resemble the end of the film a la The Golden Egg. John Hurt plays a clerk, Gabriel Byrne is the one who shoots Depp, Lance Henriksen plays a bounty hunter who apparently fucked his parents and ate them, and later we see eating his friends, Alfred Molina plays a racist and murderous priest, and Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jared Harris play crossdressing travelers who greet Depp and then moan about their hair not being as pretty as Depp’s, which y’know fair enough.
So this film is strange…. it’s strange, violent, and spiritual. Director Jim Jarmusch cut his teeth on strange and low budget absurdist dramas like Down by Law and Stranger Than Paradise, this film stands in stark contrast to those early works as the arrival of Jarmusch as the experimenter and stylist that he is. This film has a concept for a start that really holds the film together as this atmospheric triumph. Is it about Johnny Depp dying. Of course he gets shot, and is guided through the spirit world and all that, but even before he arrives at the town, it feels like we are transcending dimensions and entering some kind of Lynchian inner space. The way Depp’s character slips in and out of consciousness makes it feel like our minds really are changing planes of reality, Glover’s character feels like he is meeting death who is bringing him on this journey. The various characters she meets on his way also feel like strange Joycean, Homerian guides along his spirit’s journey to the afterlife. The film’s surrealist tone makes everything feel alien and strange in the way all the myths about such things do. The fact that he shares the name of William Blake, which certain characters become convinced that he is make it almost seem like Blake himself has died and become just another spirit in the afterlife, stripped of all identity, the afterlife being this strange netherworld that never really existed or didn’t, much like the allegorical landscape of the cinematic Wild West. This strange tone and spiritual vibe are conveyed by Jarmusch’s brilliant direction of the camera, aided by iconic cinematographer Robby Müller, long rest his soul. Their collaboration in the stark monochrome gives the whole thing a surging urgency while still remaining in Jarmusch’s vein of loose vignettes that he has explored frequently. However, you’ll get a surging push along a long wooden item, silhouettes, and dangerous push ins that give it a viscerally cinematic feel.
The other thing worth noting is its Native American, almost, co-lead Nobody. Whose backstory is one of exploitation and cultural erasure, and his arc is one of unification with his heritage and culture, which even for 1995 was pretty radical for an American western (this was only three years after Unforgiven). He is not subservient to the white man beyond revering Blake’s poetry, he is not a cute pacification of native American culture, he has crass sex and swears a lot and is generally a total badass while still seeming like a guy I could run into buying cigarettes at my local convenience store. He is a fascinating character and while his depiction is not perfect I loved every line and mannerism his performance bought, and the scene where they fuck up Alfred Molina for trying to sell Nobody a small-pox ridden blanket after refusing to sell him tobacco is nothing short of iconic. This is a film that looks at the Native American genocide strong in the face, and while it’s not integral to the narrative, it’s presence is integral to the meaning of the film, and it’s there in force.
This is a badass film that feels like the antidote to every staid and tired western I’ve seen John Wayne star in. Y’know the movie they were shooting in Mank when Amanda Seyfried was tied to a cross by Native Americans? This is a movie that says fuck those movies, we don’t need them, we’re better, we’re cooler, and we’re smarter. We don’t even need to rebut those old movies, Clint Eastwood already did that for us, now we get to play in the spoils and create new tools to tell these kinds of stories with. It also has a beautifully enigmatic score from Neil Young who improved the score over watching the movie only a few times, giving it this guitar driven, atmospheric, almost post-rock score that sounds like what Swans would pioneer on albums like The Glowing Man much later but with a heavy dose of psychedelia.
I don’t love all of this movie, but by god it fucks as hard as the best of them.