Dead Man is independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s sixth feature film, released in 1995 by Miramax Films. It is a film about death and its meaning for humans; or, maybe, rather a description of the human condition, and reflections on the real meaning of life and death. Somehow Dead Man could be seen as a novel Pilgrim’s Progress, trying to strip life of its added meanings, in the light of the concept of death. Some of the dialogues, especially the parts spoken by Nobody, are clear references to works by William Blake, the main character’s namesake. Jonathan Rosenbaum defined this film an Acid Western.
The combination of black and white film and the rough, haunting score, improvised by Neil Young, render the work sharper and more in tone with the subject matter. The vast and still landscapes are shot superbly, and they render justice to the tradition of earlier Western cinema. Particularly vivid and realistic are the western village and the Native American settlement seen at the end.
Regarding the plot, did William Blake actually die when he was first shot? And if so, was the rest of the film just the tale of an imaginary voyage, forged upon the literary tradition including Divina Commedia and Pilgrim’s Progress? The character of Nobody, colourfully interpreted by the excellent Gary Farmer, fuels this suspects when, shortly after meeting him, he asks Blake: “Did you kill the white man who killed you?” During the initial train trip ‘to hell’, the coal-stoker tells Blake about a ship; this will be understood only at the end of the movie. Dickinson Steel works is indeed an infernal place, reminiscent of Lang’s Metropolis factory, in a town called Machine (Pink Floyd, anyone?), at the end of the line. What does it stand for? The imposed mental hell man struggles to come to terms with?