The Spiritual Quest of an Individual in the American Myth of West
in the Movie Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch’s movie Dead Man (1995) is a haunting picture of Western life which stays in memory for a long time and provokes a lot of thoughts. The western genre provides an opportunity to use many metaphors, but Dead Man is not a typical western movie (Berardinelli 1). It is even classified as a revisionist western because it presents the characters in a bit different light than typically in this genre; for example, there are the cruel whites and the glorified Indians (Hall 1). However, it is not important whether the movie could be classified as a western, a revisionist western or an anti-western, because its greatest significance lies in the theme of a spiritual quest and a search for a place to belong. Actually, despite the setting of American West in the 19th century, Dead Man may serve as an allegorical tale of finding sense in life. The story of a dying accountant from Cleveland manages to convey much deeper meaning – of the endless human quest to find their place in the world. What is more, the use of modern music, black-and-white pictures, and quite modern mannerism sets the movie in modern times which appeals to the contemporary audience and provokes a thought about the outcomes of the American myths (Berardinelli 1). Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch is a story of a man looking for a place to belong, but at the same time it touches several important subjects like the vision of American West, the exploitation of Native Americans, and the contrasts between the world of whites with their machines and the world of Natives with their nature; which make the movie a multi-dimensional tale provoking a discussion about the American myth of West and the situation of an individual in this world.
The title of the movie provides a characteristic for the main hero – he is a dead man, so anything he does must lead to his death. At the beginning, William Blake (Johnny Depp) is a poor accountant from Cleveland who sells everything he has and goes West to get a job. However, the West turns out not to be as welcoming as he expected. Blake needs to learn that his real place is in the spiritual world, because in the actual world he means nothing. His change from a terrified and a bit loser-like man into a wanted gunman who kills without a blink is a result of traveling with an Indian called Nobody (Gary Farmer), but also of his physical and spiritual injures. Blake becomes a dead man at the very beginning of the movie when he is shot by the lover of a woman he is caught with; and he is also dead in his soul, because he does not see his place in the world. He comes to the Western frontier to get a job which is no longer available and his life becomes aimless. What is more, he gets involved in this vicious murderous circle and has to run away to survive. However, his only escape is into death.
The travel with Nobody becomes Blake’s spiritual quest, the Indian opens him to more mystical feelings and visions. Although Blake is not completely comprehensive of the Natives’ practices, for example the importance of the tobacco smoking, he undergoes a change from an Eastern accountant into a wanted gunman. It seems that he has to become what he is wanted for – a criminal killing the marshals and bounty hunters following him. Otherwise, he would be lost even sooner. Although Blake finally dies, he is more Indian-like – dressed in the traditional tribal clothes and put in a canoe. He is also more aware of the spiritual dimension of life. The Indian way of living – being close to nature, hunting for food, and the necessity of killing white people become the means of his finding his place in the world. Additionally, the hazy black and white pictures provide an aura of mystery; their travel is more dream-like, not completely realistic. Blake has some visions, sees some ghosts or figures which do not look very real, especially at the end when he enters the Indian camp. Finally, William Blake gives up his identity – he becomes just a dead man in a canoe, traveling in the water to meet his death. It turns out that his only place in the world is death.