Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is best described by the director himself as a “psychedelic Western”. Though the typical qualities of a Western are present – Indians and cowboys ride horses in a rocky 1800’s Wild West – the black-and-white movie is anything but typical. The soundtrack consists solely of atonal splatters of electric guitar; the dialogue is intermittent, filled with deadpan humor, long silences, and a poetic quality that can be described as both profound and platitudinous. The movie’s main character, a meek accountant played by Johnny Depp, shares William Blake’s name but is initially unaware of his namesake. As the movie progresses, the distinction between “Bill” and the poet blurs; ultimately, Jarmusch’s Blake becomes a sort of mystic entity, as much spirit as he is man.
The movie begins with Blake on a train to the ominous western town of “Machine”. Promised a job, he instead finds that his wealthy shotgun-wielding employer already replaced him. Despondent, Blake wanders the town, and after a series of absurd events is implicated in a murder. Escaping the town as a wanted man, Blake wakes up the next morning in the desert to a lone Native American tending his wounds. The Indian, comically named Nobody, is dressed in face paint and typical leather clothing, and frantically asks for tobacco in perfect, unaccented English. He admits that Blake’s wound is too close to his heart, and will slowly kill Blake. When Nobody learns Blake’s name, he responds with shock: “Is this a lie? Or a white man’s trick?”, and then reverence, ponderously reciting, “Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night,” a phrase from the poet’s Auguries of Innocence. Blake, confused and fading in and out of consciousness, bumbles, “I really don’t understand”, to which Nobody responds, “You were a poet and a painter. And now, you are a killer of white men”. Nobody embarks on a quest to restore Blake to the spirit world, convinced the poet had been reincarnated to “learn to speak through [the gun], and [his] poetry will now be written with blood.” To Nobody, Blake the poet is a spirit, accidentally returned to the physical world to fulfill a quest to kill white men.
Blake’s physical health deteriorates, and he slowly slips towards insanity. Lightning-bolt face paint replaces his erudite circular glasses, and a heavy bearskin covers his American clothing. Delusional, he oscillates between his former self (repeatedly muttering “I’d like to speak with my [employer]”), and Nobody’s, arguably also Jarmusch’s, vision of the poet. Two marshals tracking Blake stumble upon him, asking “You William Blake?” to which he responds with surprising lucidity: “Yes I am. Do you know my poetry?” Blake coldly hip-fires his shotgun, killing the two marshals, and echoes Nobody’s recitation of Auguries: “Some are born to endless night”. When Nobody and Blake finally reach the Pacific Ocean, Nobody places the dying Blake in a ceremonial Native American canoe. The movie ends with Blake drifting on the ocean, towards the spirit world.
To Jarmusch, the Western world is evil; none of the Western men have redeeming qualities. A missionary, merchant of “blessed” bullets, tries to murder Blake to collect the bounty on Blake’s head, placed more because someone wanted the horse Blake stole than to avenge the accidental murder. In the final scene, Nobody’s white Native American garb contrasts with a Western bounty hunter’s black outfit, evoking stark images of good and evil. With Nobody as his spiritual guide, Blake the accountant escapes oppressive Western society and, though dying, becomes Blake the poet, at peace with the world. Jarmusch’s Blake is a visionary, a spiritual entity congruous with Native American mysticism. Blake the poet is almost nonphysical in that though he is dead, his reputation and actions live through Blake the accountant. Not only is Blake the antithesis of Western society, but he is also the cure. Blake the accountant’s transformation to Blake the poet is complete when he learns to kill “stupid fucking white man”, as Nobody continually mutters throughout the movie. When Blake returns to the “spirit world”, he does so almost as a Native American, wearing Native American headdress and surrounded by ritualistic tobacco. Jarmusch’s William Blake is almost a spiritual entity, a reaffirmation of Native American mysticism, and a solution to the Western world Jarmusch views as oppressive.