Dead Man, New Shoes
“Expect poison from standing water”
The movement that takes place for the fictional cowboy William Blake in the film “Dead Man” by Jim Jarmusch is the final resting ground for all Western films. The film revives a sleeping genre only to find that a zombie is still dead and subsequently the film sleepwalks the Dead through a life short lived with the sole purpose of completing its own death.
“Dead Man” changes the classical western pattern by injecting new archetypes to the formulaic genre.
Firstly, the lead cowboy, played by Johnny Depp, is a poet and retains a beauty of a non-rugged man greatly contrasting “ugly cowboys” like Clint Eastwood. Depp’s looks can kill but not with cruelty, but with a piercing that attacks your heart and not your yellow bellied liver.
“Dead Man” also employs a host of characters in the film who have brief, single serving purposes. These flitting cameos, such as Iggy Pop’s turn on a fur trader who happens to be a cross dresser, break the Western mold of strong, omnipresent characters who are part of the landscape. Instead, Jarmusch’s characters are like floating attractions for the cowboy as he floats down the river of life.
The movement of this post-modern cowboy is the biggest difference from all other Westerns. William Blake is half-dead already in his profession as an accountant and when he is mortally wounded, the journey across the Inferno begins. William Blake represents the walking dead and the film can be directly paralleled to Dante’s Inferno in which man travels the afterlife in search of completion. In fact, the real life poet William Blake reinterpreted Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” with his own illustrations in the pursuit of killing off all things material in one’s life.
Blake is the postmodern hero who breaks the shackles of old Westerns. Instead of using bullets to fight off bullets, the hero uses his gun to write new poetry. This fatalistic return to the ways of the old Western cowboy is Blake’s undoing but ultimately the true act that absolves him and moves him on to true death. It vindicates a theme that runs throughout the movie which makes clear that white men’s troubles are to blame for all of the violence and problems. “Stupid fucking white men” becomes the motto of the movie as every “dying” cowboy in the film starts to realize their expiration date. As Blake nears death, he hilariously finds more and more wanted posters for himself. The desire for Blake, a dead white man, to be captured demonstrates that a dead white man is worth more to whites than the life that surrounds them in this useless society bound by its traditions.
An interesting note about how this cowboy hero transcends all other cowboys is that the character of “Deadman” is based on comic book from 1967 of the same name. In the comic book, the Deadman is already a ghost and is invisible. If we look at Blake as an invisible hero, it shows the stagnation of the Western world that surrounds him and begs for a change that can only come from his complete passing on.