Mirrors, Murders, and Morals: A Reexamination of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

by Anna Tatelman Volume 27, Issue 8-9-10 / October 2023 13 minutes (3166 words)

Dead Man (Image source, Criterion)

Dead Man opens with a shot of a steam engine huffing along the tracks, its wheels spinning. The focus then shifts to a young man (played by Johnny Depp) inside one of the train cars. From behind perfectly rounded spectacles, he peers alternately out the window and at his fellow passengers. The other patrons on the train are well-dressed in dignified top hats and lacy bonnets. Unlike the fidgety man with glasses, these passengers are quite still. Their few, slight movements are due not to their own will, but to the gentle jostling of the train.

Every minute during this opening sequence, the camera cuts from the inside of the train car to the outside, contrasting the silent, inanimate humans with the spin of wheels, the twang of guitars, and the roar of living machinery. With each switch back to the inside of the cabin, the top hats and lacy bonnets begin to disappear in place of grungy fur caps and cowboy hats, members of high society replaced by peasants of the frontier.

We viewers are not privy to the transitions, the stops of the train and the departures of its well-dressed members. We interpret the scene only as the bespectacled man – our hero, William Blake – does in-between his games of Solitaire, his long gazes out the window, and his frequent fits of dozing. Without reason or explanation, Blake's well-dressed peers transform into the gruff pioneers among whom his own checkered suit and top hat are extraordinarily misplaced.

When Blake awakens, one of the train laborers enters the cabin and settles in the seat across from him. The man (portrayed by Crispin Glover) is dusty and sweaty. Moments before, he had been toiling before the train's boiler, Neil Young's guitars wailing in the background.

"Look out the window," he says to the befuddled Blake, the very first piece of dialogue in the film to break up the twangs of the music and the rattles of the engine. "And doesn't this remind of when you were in the boat?… you were lying, looking up at the ceiling… and you think to yourself, 'Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?" He then asks Blake where he is from and why he's come "all the way out here to hell" (Dead Man). An offspring of Virgil from Dante's Inferno, the classical poet who guides the narrator through the circles of hell, this unnamed train worker is beginning Blake on his journey into the afterlife before Blake even realizes he is dying.

Dead Man is a warped Western released in 1995. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, it tells of William Blake, an accountant traveling out west to the nineteenth-century American shanty town called Machine. After being told the letter offering him a job is meaningless, he meanders to a tavern, meets a woman named Thel, and ends up tumbling into bed with her. Her former lover discovers the pair and shoots Blake, but kills Thel instead. Blake retaliates and murders the jealous lover.

Injured in the skirmish and now a Wanted man, Blake must flee town. He encounters an outcast Indigenous American called Nobody along the way. Nobody (played by Gary Farmer) is convinced that William Blake is the reincarnation of the English poet by the same name, and that he must bring Blake "to the bridge made of waters" so Blake's spirit can return home.

So begins the long trek west across America to die, a complete one-eighty from the typical American dream of going out west to be free and live. And yet it is through his cinematic two-hour journey towards death that William Blake becomes alive. Once a meek citizen who allowed the letter promising him a job to be overruled by a gun pointing in his face, Blake transforms into an assertive man who fires off both his own words and bullets rather than being dictated by the words and bullets of others.

After Blake becomes a Wanted man, several groups of bounty hunters begin to chase after him. Two particularly hapless cowboys wander upon Blake's campgrounds while Blake is some distance away urinating. The pair bicker amongst themselves about whether the possessions could be Blake's, examining the horses and smelling the discarded clothes. The shrill silence amplifies their terse anxiety, broken only on occasion by an artificial, jeering bird call.

When they spot Blake approaching, one of the men cocks his gun. The camera captures the two men from Blake's eyes: they are at a distance – not human beings with identities, but mere bodies, impersonal and base.

"Are you William Blake?" the one with the raised gun demands.

The camera cuts to Blake and his face fills the camera, forcing us to recognize the stark contrast between this face and the one from the film's beginning, with these streaks of war paint on his cheeks, these unspectacled eyes of indifference and certainty.

"Yes, I am," Blake answers as a guitar infiltrates the mute background. "Do you know my poetry?" He shoots both men in an instant, their bodies crumpling to the ground as the music – more reminiscent of a romantic encounter than a cold-blooded murder – crescendos.

The disparity here between words and actions is clear to the viewers: if language holds more power than violence, his poetry should be more potent than his pistol. But Blake sees no conflict between these ideas. He embraces his dual identity of the English poet concerned with appreciating the beauty of humanity and the American murderer concerned with ending it, becoming alive through domination with his "poetry written in blood."  

The conflict between civilized, poetic European sensibilities and barbaric, trigger-happy American tendencies is emphasized in another film dwelling upon the darker side of the American frontier: Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. In this Western, acts of violence do not deliver justice but senseless pain. It is a place where the law force is immoral and the true heroes are prostitutes and outlaws. Into this chaos arrives English Bob, but he departs almost immediately after receiving a horrible beating by the sheriff. "A plague on the whole stinking lot of you, without morals or laws!" he roars as a cart carries him out of town. "It's no wonder you all emigrated to America, because they wouldn't have you in England! You're all a lot of savages!"

Praise is heaped upon Unforgiven by both audiences and critics for its daring moral ambiguity. Despite the similarities between these two films, the majority of critics despise Dead Man for its dawdling plotline, its pretentious "flip metaphysical finery," or its sheer incomprehensibility; Roger Ebert admits in his review, "Jim Jarmusch is trying to get at something here, and I don't have a clue what it is" (Kempley, Ebert).

Those who do think they understand the film see it within English Bob's speech: white American brutes, who could find no other place to live save the "hell" of the frontier, are ruthlessly destroying all the morals and cultures ever purported by Europeans and Indigenous Americans. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader is one such critic:

Jarmusch's meticulously researched and multifaceted approach to Native American cultures… is in sobering contrast to his frightening portrait of white America as a primitive, anarchic world.

The few critics who laud the film criticize the American public for being unable to appreciate a movie that attacks their romantic and false notions of the western frontier.

But if it were true that Americans couldn't stomach a movie that critiqued their own relationship with the wild west, then Unforgiven – a film that hardly paints a more flattering portrait of the great west – wouldn't have won the Oscar's Best Picture or four Academy Awards.

What I believe that many Americans actually couldn't stomach about Dead Man was its refusal to deliver its meaning in as straightforward a manner as William Blake asks those bounty hunters if they know his poetry. Jim Jarmusch's ultimate message is hardly as simplistic as labeling white settlers as immoral monsters while declaring Europeans and Indigenous Americans as civilized humans.

What the critics perhaps fail to notice is that, however elegant his speech might be, Unforgiven's English Bob entire purpose for coming to America is to kill a man and collect the reward, and that he has a fearsome reputation for being a merciless murderer. The critics seem to forget that Nobody never once admonishes Blake for his frequent murders and accepts Blake's "present" – a Wanted poster bearing Blake's own face – as though in triumph of Blake's evolution into a murderer. They don't recall how the original William Blake wrote of violence within England itself, how even "the hapless Soldier's sigh runs in blood down Palace walls," how "every face" bears "marks of misery" and "woe" (Blake).

Jarmusch's point isn't that Europeans and Indigenous Americans are well-mannered pillars of morality and white Americans are killers. His point is that we all have the potential to become savage murderers, whether we begin as a cultured British poet or a fainthearted American accountant.

How much control individuals have over this lurking murderous potential is questioned throughout the film. The unnamed train laborer articulates this first at the very beginning of Blake's trek into hell, when he speaks of being able to only watch the shifting landscape around them without changing anything. The character of Nobody also probes at this idea, such as when he declares that he must take Blake to "the mirror" in order to be taken "up to the next level of the world." If taken literally, Nobody is essentially saying that humans become what is reflected back at them within their surroundings.

The film's structure itself emphasizes this theme of journeying towards an inevitable fate predicted by a human's surroundings. Many of  Dead Man's sequences contain cinematic echoes, such as the opening and ending. When Blake steps off the train and enters the town of Machine, his timid gaze takes in one strange, discomforting sight after another: a plethora of bull skulls mounted to a wall, a horse peeing and pawing anxiously upon the ground, a woman giving a cowboy a blow-job, countless dirtied faces and sullen eyes glowering at him. His arrival to the Indigenous American village is similarly unsettling in the way that the people stare unflinchingly at Blake as he stumbles past.  

Both times, the camera skims between the unfamiliar sights and Blake's face. Both times, Blake is a foreigner unable to communicate with those around him, an outsider losing control over both his life and pending death. Blake's inability to stay awake for longer than several minutes at any point during the film further emphasizes this loss of control. In sleep, humans are at their most base: vulnerable, powerless, and utterly without a sense of morality.

Dead Man is a descendant of Stephen King's first novel, Carrie. Both examine the relationship between language and violence, between domination through words or weapons. Margaret White is the mother of the title character and lives her life in fervent devotion to God. Fearing His judgment, she forces Carrie to pray zealously every time Carrie commits a "sin," be it speaking to the "slut" neighbor in a bikini or receiving the "Curse of Blood" (her period) for succumbing to immoral weakness (King 32). After being tormented by her peers for her entire life, Carrie rebels against her mother's Puritanical rule. Margaret comes to the conclusion that her verbose preaching and prayers are not enough, that only bloodshed can make a difference. "The only way to kill sin, true black sin, was to drown it in the blood of (she must be sacrificed) a repentant heart," she thinks as she cleans her carving knife (149). 

It is Margaret, not God, who ultimately commits one of the largest judgments in the novel and causes her 'sinner' daughter to pay in the extreme. Her use of violence achieves its goal, just as Carrie's violence does against the classmates who have made her feel powerless for her entire life. Yet the format of the novel – action scenes interspliced with cuttings from interviews, books, and articles from the future about Carrie's legacy – suggests that the effects of words prevail just as much as the effects of weapons. Through this melding of ink and blood, we find something that endures: the haunting story of a mother and daughter searching for that mythical America where a person actually has autonomy and control of their life. Like Carrie and Margaret White, William Blake becomes immersed in an evolving battle between words and weapons, struggling to gain control in a world where the scenery seems to move without his influence. Like Carrie and Margaret White, William Blake both conforms and rebels against these confinements to his autonomy. He does not question the frontier's influence over his life, but neither does he succumb to it. Blake doesn't live under the delusion that his evolution from meek accountant to casual killer is a result of simply the untamed west.

When Nobody takes away his glasses midway through the film, Blake is initially angry. Just as Nobody predicts though, Blake is soon able to "see better without" his spectacles – able to see the consequences of each of his actions, able to not only understand but accept what aspects of his life are within his control. His eyes are never warily distant when he murders someone, as they are when we meet him on the train: they are always steady and certain as he speaks his poetry over the bodies of his victims. In this battle, neither the pen nor the sword is mightier. The two exist in a symbiotic relationship: the sword can only conquer when its hilt bears poetic inscriptions, the pen when its ink is made from blood.

This is perhaps what many of Dead Man's critics have, understandably, struggled to understand, because this idea barely seems to make sense at first. Weapons are brutal, casually apathetic to the pain they force their victims to endure. They symbolize human history before civilization, rationality, or morality. The pen, on the other hand, represents humanity's cultured, worldly nature. A pen symbolizes modern times, where people (ideally) exchange ideas and exert mastery over others not through brute force, but the brilliant compassion and logic of written decrees, scientific papers, or moral treatises. There does not, at first glance, appear to be an intersection between these two.

But Jarmusch's Dead Man is not the first work to suggest that there might be such an intersection. Sigmund Freud's Thoughts for the Times on War and Death explores the widespread disillusionment that resulted from WWI. Freud does not understand why civilians are so shocked by the massive death toll of the war, by how easily sophisticated and global citizens can and did turn on one another in brute savagery. Freud sees no conflict here, because even as humans attain higher mental states, their "primitive stage can always be re-established," no matter how many years it has been dormant (Freud 285). In other words, all people can return to their primal origins with ease, especially when the ethical laws imposed by society are stripped away and violence again becomes the norm. Freud offers sleep as "an excellent example of the plasticity of mental life," for whenever humans slumber, "[they] throw off [their] hard-won morality like a garment, and put it on again next morning" (286). The human mind sees no conflict between being capable of both sleep and consciousness. It sees no conflict between inhabiting both our highly sophisticated and verbose stage simultaneous to the primal stage because "the primitive mind is… imperishable" (285).  

If there is a moral to Dead Man, it is that there often is no moral to extract from life or art. Jim Jarmusch's film suggests that people can be both poets and murderers – civilized and brutish, in control and out of control of their lives, traveling towards death and life – all at once. Trying to interpret Dead Man as a moral allegory or fable leads to a false binary, a mistaken choice of either-or.

Jarmusch isn't trying to tell us what the moral of his film is. He's trying to reveal the core of humanity. In Dead Man, Jarmusch holds up a mirror to our society – albeit a highly stylized, surrealist mirror – to help us better understand our shared capacity for both cruel and ethical behaviors.

The film's closing scene mirrors its opening: William Blake again makes a journey, this time down a river. His canoe delivers him to his death, but his awareness of his life – of his ability to write poetry in blood, of his refusal to be confined by seeming dichotomies – puts him in stark contrast to the opening scene’s passive train riders. Those train passengers are unaware of the landscape that moves without them and thus unaware of the ways they can alter their own lives. Since they are oblivious to their pending deaths, they cannot recognize their own capacity for life. William Blake, by contrast, has become alive through his developing consciousness of how he's journeying toward his death.

In Dead Man, Jarmusch tries to show us that humanity isn't divided into either’s and or’s, but composed instead of and’s. This simultaneity is what allows English Bob and the White females to recognize both the power of their weapons and their words. This simultaneity is what allows William Blake to be both the worldly, educated poet and the indifferent, primitive killer. To be both conscious, fully cognizant of his actions, and forever dozing. And through this convergence of seemingly paradoxical ideas, our dead man becomes awake – alive.

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. "Dead Man." Chicago Sun-Times 28 Jun 1996. Web. 22 Feb. 2023.

Freud, Sigmund. "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death." Trans. James Strachey. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Toronto: The Hogarth Press, 1968. 275-300. Print.

Jarmusch, Jim. Dead Man. Miramax Films, 1995.

Kempley, Rita. "'Dead Man': Cowpoet and Indian." Washington Post 17 May 1996. Web. 20 Feb. 2023.

King, Stephen. Carrie. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. 1-245. Print.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Acid Western." Chicago Reader. 27 Jun 1996. Web. 22 Feb. 2023.

Mirrors, Murders, and Morals: A Reexamination of Jim Jarmusch’s <em>Dead Man</em>

Anna Tatelman holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans. Her plays have previously been produced or are forthcoming at theatre organizations such as the the Mid-America Theatre Conference, Centerstage Theatre, and Intramural Theatre. Anna’s fiction and non-fiction writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Drunk Monkeys, The Bookends Review’s online magazine and Best of 2017 printed anthology, The Gallatin Review, and GLASS Quarterly Magazine. When not posing as the female reincarnation of Tennessee Williams, Anna can usually be found overdosing on caffeine, befriending feral cats, and/or eating ice cream.

Volume 27, Issue 8-9-10 / October 2023 Essays   jim jarmusch   johnny depp   neo-western