Cinescapade - Dead Man



Unveiling the spiritual nature of Dead Man
Germany/Japan/USA, 1995. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, written by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, Robert Mitchum.
In English, 121 minutes. Miramax.

"It is preferable not to travel with a dead man." Henri Michaux

The analysis that follows is based in great part on the above quote that opens Jim Jarmusch's 1995 picture Dead Man, as well as on the movie's title. These elements, as well as the opening scenes, often embody the concepts, ideas or messages that the filmmaker wants to get across to the audience, in other words, the movie's essence. In Dead Man, Michaux's words prompts the viewer to put aside the logical, straightforward narrative arc and look at the movie from a deeper, symbolic point of view.

Michaux's phrase contains two fundamental elements: the idea of voyage and the reference to death. Everything in Dead Man points toward the notion of journey. The movie sets in motion with a train ride, charts the flight of Blake (Johnny Depp), a Cleveland accountant, from the town of Machine to a Makah village, and ends with a boat ride. The notion of voyage is the foremost theme in this film, no matter what level of interpretation is being used. The second theme is death, present in each step of this journey. In Machine, there are skulls and bones everywhere, man and animal alike. During Blake's travels through the country, we see death and desolation, dead soldiers, burning houses, destroyed settlements, a dead fawn. Blake himself could be seen as Death, as he brings death to all around him. All the people who come into contact with him one way or the other end up dead (Thel, Charlie, the trappers, the men hunting him, the men at the trading post). Even Blake's companion and guide, Nobody, dies in the end. Some are killed by the hero, some are killed by other people, some die by accident, but eventually, all the people that have something to do with Blake die.

Death and travel, Blake as Death, a death voyage, death as a journey, all these variations on the two basic themes are present in Dead Man. The narrative arc recounts the journey taken by the main character towards his own demise. But the metaphoric quality of Michaux's sentence suggests a symbolic level of interpretation. On a more abstract level, the opening quotation could quite literally portend the story. Dead Man then becomes the story of a dead man, traveling through Purgatory or some sort of afterlife. As the narrative shows Blake to be quite alive, death is therefore of a spiritual nature rather than a physical one, a death through loss of identity or the loss of the 'essence of being'.

The hero, William Blake, believes he is an accountant from Cleveland but is later on declared to be a famous English poet and painter from the 19th century. His homonym, William Blake (1757-1827) was a self-proclaimed prophetic poet whose work revolved mainly around two elements: the Bible, which "represented for him the Great Code of Art, the total form of what he called the Divine Vision" , and what he called his Vision or Intellectual Vision, "a comprehensive story of how mankind fell into its present condition, what that condition was, and how mankind was to be freed from all conditions, particularly from the confining context of nature." These visions were his spiritual understanding of the world seen "through the imaginative eye." Trained as an engraver, he not only wrote poems but illustrated them as well. In his lifetime he created a mythology of his own, based largely on his own religious and personal concepts of the "Real Man, the unfallen unity we had been and must become again." Much of his imagery, his words and his characters appear in the movie, even though Dead Man takes place some 50 years after William Blake's death (the movie being situated in the mid-1870es by Jarmusch ). These elements from William Blake's body of work, as well as the enigma created by his 'presence' in the movie (again best understood on a symbolic level), provide fascinating clues to interpret Jarmusch's movie. To clarify matters, the actual poet will be refered to only as 'William Blake' or 'the poet', and his cinematic counterpart as 'Blake', 'the hero', 'Johnny Depp's character' or 'the main character.'

From a narrative point of view, Dead Man might appear as an absurdist tale. An accountant from Cleveland, Blake, travels to a caricatured West where he is completely maladjusted. He is made fun of, shot at, and finally hunted down. His salvation lies in a strange Native American who calls himself Nobody (Gary Farmer). It is hard at first to see if Nobody is a blessing or a curse, what with his incomprehensible babble, his expletives of "Stupid fucking white man" or his clumsy knife surgery on our main protagonist. But when the Indian discovers Blake's name, he believes him to be the English poet, William Blake, whose words he has admired in the past. This is the starting point of a relationship between the two men. Nobody's purpose (and the point of the movie) is to bring Blake west, to the shore and set him out to sea (end of story). Visibly, Nobody is trying to save the main protagonist, but in a straightforward narrative perspective, it is hard to understand how this will help our hero. In fact, Nobody is preparing Blake for a spiritual voyage. He is doing all this so that Blake's spirit (or soul from a Judeo-Christian vantage point) can return to the place where it came from. From this perspective, the hero's soul is what is at stake. Only after redemption can souls make it into Heaven (unless being a saint whose soul goes straight to Heaven). One could view Dead Man as Blake's journey through Purgatory to a place that Nobody calls "the next level of worlds" or "the place where all the spirits come from." William Blake offers an interesting, modern interpretation (for his time) of the place that the main character is traveling through in Dead Man. The poet illustrated Dante's Divine Comedy and its visions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, and although he believed in these places, he also thought them to be part of this world, not the next. William Blake wrote, "these States Exist now. Man Passes on, but States remain for Ever." Katherine Raine explains that for the poet, "Dante is the Traveler who explores the 'States'; progressing, as all Mental Travelers must, from the cave or grave of the hells of this world (where spiritual journeys begin) through the circles of purgatory (in which suffering is rendered tolerable by a realization that it is not without use in the purification of souls), to the world of spiritual light. In Blake's terms, he traverses 'the circle of Destiny', which embraces every possible human experience."

In my opinion, there isn't a better way to describe Dead Man's universe. The main character does not realize he is 'dead', lost spiritually, and does not know that he is traveling through this 'state'. He has lost his identity, his purpose, and his soul needs purification. No matter what he does or how hard he tries, Blake cannot influence his environment, and hence his destiny, until he starts to regain a spiritual identity. His actions are meaningless; he is like a feather blown around by the wind, unable to do anything to change the course of his flight. The entire voyage through this shadowy world, the real world but a symbolic Purgatory, is an unceasing fight for Blake's soul. In this case scenario, like all other inhabitants of this place, Nobody is a 'spirit'. He represents the spiritual ferryman between two worlds or two 'states', helping Blake go beyond Purgatory, into Heaven, the world of spiritual light. The people in Machine and its surroundings are all outcasts of a sort or another, which could be read as a metaphor for lost souls. These characters are stuck in this 'state', looking for a purpose. Some are good, some are bad spirits/lost souls, like Nobody in the former case and Cole Wilson (Lance Hendriksen) in the latter. One could read the brilliant white circles surrounding all of Nobody's recollections from this perspective. This early filmmaking iris technique suits the old-fashioned era in which the story takes place. The fact that the color is a brilliant white, the opposite of the usual dark irises, could indicate memories of a past life or the idea that Nobody has reached spiritual enlightenment. Another element that points towards the idea that Nobody is on a higher spiritual plane appears in the scene in which he and Blake embark on the canoe ride to the Makah village. As they are floating down the stream (yet another stage in this spiritual quest), Nobody can see various elements of his past life: a grown elk, reflecting the time when he was caught by white men just as he had trapped a young elk; or a scene of destruction and murder, the same which he recalls in his white-ringed remembrances.
If one considers Nobody as a ferryman between 'states' of enlightenment and non-enlightenment, then his words suddenly start to make sense, as do his actions. His purpose is to bring Blake to the sea and supply him with a canoe, so the poet can cross the water. Symbolically, the crossing of the water represents the transmigration of the soul. Blake is on the last part of his journey to deliverance, or in Nobody's terms, he is going to meet the Great Spirit. Nobody prepares the canoe with all the ritual elements for Blake's trip, and especially with tobacco, an important part of Native American ceremonial rituals.

Much of the dialogue in Dead Man, as well as some symbols, is not very subtle. Jarmusch seems to make a very deliberate use of this heavy-handedness. Throughout the movie, details and dialogue bluntly point toward the idea that Blake is a dead man entering some hellish afterworld, a hideous spiritual desert. The religious symbolism is of the 'in-your-face' variety while the characters, events and the western film genre are made into caricatures. This contributes to the feeling of a surrealistic world.

In the opening scene, the train driver, covered in soot, throws coal into the furnace and flames leap out, like an indication of the hell that is to come, but also a sign of the purification of the soul, in other words, a depiction of Purgatory. In the next shot, the train enters a tunnel, which could be seen symbolically as entering the next world. Once the train surfaces on the other side, everything becomes strange. Only trappers -the wildest characters- remain, the scenery shows death and destruction -of wagons, of villages. The driver comes up to Blake and the hero experiences the first of many surreal conversations. He asks Blake if this trip does not remind him of when he was in the boat, thinking, "Why is it that the landscape is moving but the boat is still?" This speech contains two indications. The first is the reference to the boat, the goal of Blake and Nobody's journey. Nobody speaks of it as the vessel leading to rebirth (or salvation), the canoe that crosses the sea to the point where sea and sky meet, or the mirror (a concept that will be analyzed further on). The big boat also took Nobody away from his people and brought him back home -physically or spiritually, we are not sure. Symbolically, the boat is the vessel that allows the transmigration of the soul. From this perspective, the train driver is already alluding to the journey into death and rebirth. Moving west is also a symbol of rebirth and of renewal, so in that sense, Blake has been moving towards rebirth since the beginning of the movie -except that he could very well remain stuck in this 'state' for ever, like the other beings there.

The train driver's speech also indicates that what is perceived might not be real. The landscape is moving but the boat is not. Are things always what they seem to be? This seems to replicate the dreamlike state that Blake is in. Is Blake dreaming or is he awake? Is this reality or not? Is he alive or dead? By pretending that Blake is alive while constantly alluding to his death, Jarmusch maintains an ambiguity that contributes to the movie's dream atmosphere.

The train driver refers to Blake's stop, the town of Machine, as "the end of the line", Hell, a place where one can trust nobody and where Blake is "just as likely to find [his] own grave." Dickinson also speaks along these lines when he tells Blake "The only job you're going to get here is pushing up daisies through a pine box." It is almost as if everyone is trying to tell him that death is the only answer. Nobody is especially blunt about Blake's 'deadness'. He asks, "Did you kill the white man who killed you?" to which Blake answers, "I'm not dead!" as if he needed to assert his state of being. Later, Nobody sees a skull instead of Blake's face in sacred visions brought on by peyote. When Nobody finally believes that this white man is called William Blake, he reiterates, "Then you are a dead man." Blake says that he does not understand, to which Nobody answers "But I understand. You were a painter and a poet and now you are a killer of white men." Blake has lost the knowledge of who he is, he has lost his identity, his spiritual life. Nobody assigns him a new identity, that of a killer of white men, who writes his poetry in blood. As Blake takes on this identity, he seems to revive and transform. Nobody helps Blake 'see' on a spiritual level; taking the hero's "looking glasses" away to help him see more clearly beyond the physical world and earthly concerns. When the Native American first finds our hero and cannot get the bullet out of his chest, he mutters "Cut the heart instead, release the spirit within." But instead of this, the Indian leads Johnny Depp's character to the path that will bring his spirit back where it belongs -not just release, but regeneration.

William Blake's engravings and woodcuts bear a resemblance to the images in Dead Man, especially his Pastorals of Virgil. A contemporary of Blake, artist Samuel Palmer said of these, "they are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise. (…) Intense depth, solemnity, and vivid brilliancy only coldly and partially describe them. There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul."

This mysticism is also present in the film's settings, with landscapes that seem to parallel or represent the steps taken in the hero's spiritual journey. Nobody and Blake go from windy hills down to the dense, black forest, a symbolically tortuous road on a quest that first leads them into dense, inscrutable bearings.
When the Indian tells Blake about his life, the pair is traveling through a vale of shiny white birch trees, perhaps a reflection of the fact that Nobody is a higher spirit. At the bottom of the valley, Blake must go through a trial (the trappers) that seems to test his faith in Nobody as much as his will to fight for his soul. A pouring of purifying rain follows the successful end to this test. After this, the tandem pass a river, but it is dried up -the surroundings are not yet providing the cleansing that Blake needs. The turning point comes when the Native American goes through his ritual vision and sees the hero's head as a skull. Fittingly, the crossroads come at night, as darkness precedes the light of spirituality. Nobody paints Blake's face into a death mask, a sort of marking of the character's spiritual journey, and leaves the main character so that Blake can reach his own vision by himself. The hero finds this vision when he finds the fawn. The dead fawn seems to symbolize himself; a poor, defenseless animal, shot in the neck or upper torso. This idea of innocence is also present in William Blake's poetry, as we will see further in the discussion. Blake approaches the animal, touches the partially dried blood seeping out of the wound, then feels the blood of his own wound. He has reached realization that he is dead and, curling up against the fawn, one could almost believe he is weeping over his own passing. He repeats Nobody's gesture and paints his face with the animal's blood. The mix of bloods shows his integration of this part of him, the dead, innocent part. Blake regains strength as he starts to reclaim his identity. He embraces this new self by killing the two marshals with unwavering accuracy (which was not amongst the skills of Blake as we knew him in Machine, when he shot Charlie completely by accident). Before he shoots he proclaims who he is, William Blake, the poet who writes his poetry in blood. His quest continues through the forest and he starts ascending again, through burned trees, death and desolation. After finding the fawn in the valley, he joins with Nobody again and they travel through majestic redwood trees, symbols of the knowledge the hero has just acquired or representations of an more ancient wisdom. To get to the Makah village, Nobody and Blake must travel on the river, a sort of cleansing crossing to another level. The Native American sees his past there, while the hero's life slips away as his blood flows into the water, another purification before he reaches the light of spirituality. At the same time, he is losing his strength again, another sign that he is ending this phase of his journey. The totem at the entrance of the Makah village is like the gate to another world. The cleansing continues; as Blake begins his trip on the sea, rain starts drizzling on him. As Nobody puts it, "it is time for you to go back where you came from, where all the spirits come from and where they all return." This use of water is reflected in William Blake's original work as well. The mythology of this epic poet, constructed over the years, draws heavily on the Bible in which water is continuously used as a symbol of life.

Visual construction
The visual construction of the movie creates and enhances the surrealistic atmosphere. Jarmusch begins with short shots fading in and out against a dark screen, generating a dreamlike ambiance that evokes an altered state of consciousness. Little by little, the flashes grow longer, the dark screen less frequent. The images begin to blend into a visual thread, as if the traveler was entering a new world that was slowly taking shape around him. Blake is following the same pattern, waking and falling asleep, the images entering and leaving his consciousness as he is awakening to the afterlife. His environment is becoming odder and odder, the characters surrounding him stranger (to say the least), the end of the line an outlandish and frightening place; the stage is set for some sort of supernatural realm. Blake wakes up after the tunnel, shortly before "the end of the line", another sign that he is awakening to the afterlife. Throughout the movie, the visual construction follows this pattern: the scenes always fade to black and stay that way for a while, creating a string of vignettes analogous to mind pictures instead of steady stream of consciousness. This construction parallels Blake's perception of events, as he continues to fade in and out of consciousness throughout the movie, his moments of awareness becoming shorter as he nears the end of his travel through the afterlife. The idea of vignettes is not very distant from William Blake's own views. Kathleen Raine writes of this, "[William Blake's] work, as he believed, represents 'portions of eternity' seen in imaginative vision," these fragments being illustrated in the movie by Jarmusch's vignettes. Blake himself speaks of "ever Existent Images" (…) a collective archetypal world whose reality is more credible in our century than it was in his own." Again, we encounter the idea of the afterlife as being more real than life itself. And the black screens separating the different moments of the story almost punctuate the movie, as the white space between stanzas does a poem.

The way Dead Man is constructed also reflects the central theme around which the story revolves. This theme is that of the mirror. Nobody tells Blake that he will bring him "to the bridge made of waters, to the mirror. There you will be taken to the next level where your spirit belongs (…) to the place where the sea meets the sky." In order to be reborn, Blake must go through the mirror. As if to underline this, the entire movie is built as a mirror, the first part of Blake's experience being reflected by the second part. The pivotal moment is when Blake accepts Nobody's view of what is happening to him: he is Blake the poet, he is a killer of white men, he must get to the shore and take the boat, basically, he accepts that he is dead in some symbolic, spiritual sense. The brief interval in which Blake is alone is the moment of truth, when he acknowledges who and what he is, and what he must do. The two poles of Blake's journey are the villages: the bad, white town of Machine and its amorality, and on the other hand, the Native American village, a place of hope on the brink of the sea, the cleansing spiritual harbor leading to a better world. The film opposes profit and power to spirituality, industrialization to nature. Blake will cross both places in a parallel fashion. The villages are very similar to each other. A long road runs through the middle of each village, and as Blake treads on it, he passes people who stare at him. Both roads are littered with animal skulls and bones, both display people engaged in various activities (women cooking, men skinning furs, etc.) At the very end, closing the street, there is the central totem in the Makah village, contrasted with the Metalworks factory in Machine. But there is a change in Blake: he arrived alone, disoriented but sturdy in Machine, and the camera followed him. In the Native community, he is brought in, still disoriented but unable to walk, by a friend, Nobody, and the camera pulls back in front of him. In the beginning, Blake believes he knows who he is; he is strong and sure of himself. When things deteriorate and events keep taking a turn for the worse, the hero's confidence in what he knows wears away and he becomes weaker. Once he accepts the identity given to him by Nobody, when the Native American paints his face, he regains purpose and strength. But eventually, the painting on his face fades away as he nears the end of his journey and he becomes weak again, as if each passage from one 'level' to the next involved a loss of energy.

While Blake's entrance to Metalworks only brought hate and fury, the giant totem in the Makah village brings forth help that will give him life -life after death. Similarly, the very beginning of the movie is mirrored by its ending. The train trip becomes a boat ride; as Blake arrived he is now leaving, alone, losing and regaining consciousness, the images waxing and waning. The shootout between Cole and Nobody mirrors the senseless murdering of the buffalos from the train.
The voyage itself is double, seen first through the eyes of Blake and Nobody, then through the eyes of Blake's pursuers. The relationship between Blake and Nobody and the links between the three mercenaries seem to be opposite reflections of each other as well. While Blake and Nobody develop a bond of respect and appreciation, the bounty hunters kill each other, even eating one another, unable to put their skills together for a common goal. It is the opposition of selflessness and egotism. Cole Wilson and Blake also seem to be a sort of antithesis of one another, two parts of the same image. Wilson is a murderer with no conscience or morality, Blake an innocent, too meek to survive in this world. Blake kills by mistake, but in the end his shooting skills become very accurate, whereas Wilson is the best shooter in the West as he starts out, but he misses Nobody when he first shoots at him on the shore at the end of the movie. Both Cole Wilson and our hero are shot in the left shoulder during this voyage, one by a Native arrow, the other by a white man's bullet. Finally, Blake accepts Nobody's painting ritual as well as his spiritual beliefs, thus embracing his own spirituality, whereas Wilson refuses any sacred symbolism (when he sees the head of the dead Marshall in the fire with its crown of wood, he mutters "Goddamn religious icon" and destroys it). There is no redemption for Wilson.

Nobody and Blake also complete each other and reflect characteristics of the other. Blake starts his voyage as the ultimate white city boy, and ends it as a Native American, his face painted, in Makah garb on a boat that will take him on a trip that is part of Indian spiritual beliefs. Nobody is a Native American that was taken away from his people and made into an Englishman. He speaks perfect English, better than any other character in the movie and he recites William Blake's poetry. Although they wear clothes appropriate to their cultural belonging during most of the movie, Blake's face is painted (like an Indian's) while Nobody's face is not. They complete each other and reflect signs of the other's culture. Ultimately, that is the most significant meaning of the mirror. To go through the mirror is to accept oneself, one's reflection. But we are all human beings, we are all the same; to accept the others is to accept oneself. It is the ultimate understanding. In this afterlife, as in life, white man thought the Native American was less human, different, dangerous. Blake finds salvation through acceptation of the other. Here the afterlife replicates the world of the living, as it is but a mirror of how we live.

William Blake's work
"Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
God appears and God is Light
To those poor souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day."

These verses of William Blake recited by Nobody in the film show how the poet believed that faith could save even lost souls. To me, these lines perfectly embody Dead Man's world. The opposition between sweet delight and endless night reflect the spirits that make it towards redemption versus the ones that are stuck in Machine. As in the poem, Johnny Depp's character is led to believe a lie. But Blake, with the help of Nobody, sees the light, sees that there is more than physical life. He will be able to leave the night for the day, leave the afterlife for a rebirth of his soul. This fits perfectly with what is know of the great poet. William Blake believed in something deeper than Hell for the sinful and Heaven for the virtuous. His philosophy of life encompassed ideas that reached the wisdom of Buddhism: "…I do not consider either the Just or the Wicked to be in a Supreme State, but to be every one of them States of the Sleep which the soul may fall into in its deadly dreams of Good and Evil when it leaves Paradise following the Serpent." Blake is indeed asleep, mislead, unaware of the darkness he has lost himself in until Nobody brings him back to the light.

Much of William Blake's imagery can be found in Dead Man. Thel, the girl that unwillingly gets Blake shot, clearly derives from the poet's "Book of Thel." Blake's voyage in the movie can be interpreted as a passage not only from dark to light, death to rebirth, but also as the passage from innocence to experience. William Blake's early body of work is entitled "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience", and indeed, Blake does go from one to the other in the film. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature states, "The root meaning of innocence is 'harmlessness', the derived meanings 'guiltlessness' and 'freedom from sin'. But [William] Blake uses the word to mean 'inexperience' as well." Blake arrives as an innocent, well-intentioned young man but ends up "writing his poetry in blood." He loses his freedom from sin as well as his inexperience. He cradles the fawn, symbol of his lost innocence, in his arms, mourning the passage to this new state of being. But William Blake sees innocence and experience as "states of the soul through which we pass, neither is a finality, both are necessary, and neither is wholly preferable to the other." The passages of Blake's poetry that are recited by Nobody (and reproduced above) come from a collection of poems entitled "Auguries of Innocence." Once more, the Anthology explains this title as meaning "omens or divinations, that is, tokens of the state of Innocence." Blake's innocence is shown in his inexperience, how maladjusted he is to this world, or to the state of experience. He has to undergo the stages leading to experience, managing on his own, thinking and acting for himself, and accepting his new identity and shedding the old one, the dead Blake. Thel, as the Anthology contends, is also "an image of Innocence unwilling to carry herself over into the world of Experience." This is why she dies in Machine, an innocent unable to reach this other state. Like the fawn, she gets shot. Innocence must be set aside, killed in a way, in order to attain the state of experience. Ultimately, going through these states of innocence and experience could be what brings human beings through the "States of Destiny" to enlightenment. Another of William Blake's epic poems, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" shows us how the poet sets Heaven and Hell as two opposites that can be reconciled. He writes that Heaven and Hell are born together, which is the world that Jarmusch depicts. Hell is Machine and its surroundings, but in it one finds the seeds of Heaven. Heaven for that matter is not far away, "where the sea meets the sky" or one could say on the other side of purification and light.

There is much violence in William Blake's prophetic poems, poems that Nobody qualifies in the movie as "powerful words, they spoke to me." The movie also displays violence, some expressed in a similar manner, some differently. William Blake writes of flames and graves, wails and explosions, which is mostly rendered in the movie by guns and violence between men. But more importantly, William Blake's poetry is about beauty. Even though Jarmusch shows us death, destruction and malevolence, this is outweighed by the spiritual nature of Blake's quest, the purity of his, Nobody's and Thel's intents, and the beauty of the surroundings. Above all, Jim Jarmusch manages to convey a spiritual message, as well as bring hope and beauty to a body of work dealing mainly with death and desolation. In this, he truly pays homage to William Blake.

"To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."


- The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, Volume II. Edited by Frank Kermode and John Hollander (General Editors), Harold Bloom, Martin Price, J.B. Trapp, Lionel Trilling. Oxford University Press: New York, 1973.
- Kathleen Raine, "William Blake." Thames and Hudson Ed, London: 1970.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Dead Man". BFI Modern Classics.


© Briana Berg, 2001