A Journey of a “Dead Man”: Jim Jarmusch’s Masterpiece

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

William Blake

        “It is preferable not to travel with a dead man.” (Henri Michaux) Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man starts with the quotation by Michaux alerting the viewer that there are going to have a bizarre and unrealistic cinematic experience. Traveling with a dead man. Traveling as a dead man. Traveling to become a dead man. The film is a dead man’s journey to be dead, the journey to the afterlife.

        The film starts with the close-up of train wheels in motion. Immediately afterwards, we get a glimpse of the main character with the name William Blake, a neatly suited, naïve and extra-civilized accountant from Cleveland traveling, to the wild west. The image fades-in and fades-out frequently, emphasizing the dreamlike impression and duplicating the character’s psychological state and his irrelevance to his surroundings. The character, on his turn, falls asleep and wakes up, as if repeating the image. As the train moves on, the mis-en-scene of the train continually changes. People become more and more strange and wild. Jarmusch beautifully frames the images, juxtaposing Blake with his briefcase in the foreground and a man with a gun in the background, thus emphasizing the evident mismatch.


        Neil Young’s strangely beautiful music, as always, not only accompanies the image but actively adds to it. The guitar score works perfectly; it expresses the instinctual nature of the diegesis and Jarmusch’s own style in cinema. At times, soft and poetic, at times, violent, abrupt, aggressive, unsteady, the soundtrack becomes crucial part of the cinematography. In conglomeration of the music, the lack of dialogue, absence of color in the palette, the film resembles silent films of early 20th century.  



        Though Dead Man is officially considered as Western, Jarmusch does not follow the dynamics and adventurousness of spaghetti westerns. Dead Man is about spiritual and not adventurous journey. This is why it is slow and undramatic and here resides the immense beauty of the film.

        Jarmusch is a director who is interested in the undramatic moments of life. His stories usually are weaved around the characters. He stretches the characters out as much as it’s possible in order to make them authentic. Dead Man is a film about characters, their surrealistic relationship and story. William Blake, who appears to be an accountant from Cleveland, is accompanied by a Native American named Nobody. Nobody enlightens Blake with the fact that he is a dead Romanticist poet and should take his journey to the afterlife. The journey seems to be like a passage through Purgatory, full of lost souls who try to kill them on the way.

        The composition of the mis-en-scene matches perfectly with the themes of death and journey to afterlife.  In fact, it reminds of William Blake’s engravings of Pastorals of Virgil (1821). The landscape also changes from flat hills to dense forests representing the gradual increase of the hardships of the spiritual journey.


   Jarmusch’s minimal yet superb use of dialogue not only adds to the poetical quality of the film but gives more depth to the characters. William Blake, who at the beginning is rather Kafkaesque character, through the development of dialogue admits that he is a dead man. Nobody’s assertive and wisely structured sentences are like poetry for the ear. “Did you kill the white man who killed you?” And he continues with: “You were a painter and a poet and now you are a killer of white men.” Nobody is the ferryman for Blake’s journey. He removes Blake’s looking glass and helps him see the world beyond its physical manifestation.


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


        William Blake’s poetry is mostly about beauty and Dead Man recreates that beauty through cinematic language. Jarmusch’s sensible use of shadowy black-and-white images, narrative, soundtrack, mis-en-scene combine together and make the film into an authentic work of art.

 Anush Ter-Khachatryan

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