The Balance Between Good and Evil in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man
Every night and 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
Nobody (Gary Farmer; from William Blake's "Augeries of Innocence")
Upon its initial release, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1996) was not as critically acclaimed as I would have expected it to be. Dead Man is a high point in Jarmusch's oeuvre and it distinguishes itself from his previous movies in terms of style, tone and subject matter. Up until this point Jarmusch's movies had been character driven and they demonstrated the absurdity of what was then modern America, whereas Dead Man is seen as more of a political statement, as well as being a period piece and to some extent more of a genre film that defines itself in the Western genre by dissociating itself from the genre.
The film did not impress Roger Ebert; in his review he gave it one and a half stars.1 Ebert complains that the movie was dull and that Neil Young's soundtrack was "unfortunate." He also describes the movie as being a "strange, slow, unrewarding movie that provides us with more time to think about its meaning than with meaning." Even though many might agree with these sentiments presented by Ebert, I do not; I will put forward the opposing argument that this movie is very rewarding and that it is full of meaning. Ever since my first viewing of this movie twenty years ago I am still thinking about it today. It could be that I am projecting meaning onto the text, much like the images identified in the fuzzy snow of an old analogue television set and the smell of the electrons and X-rays that it emits. The brain is a very interesting perception machine and will try to connect meaning to random events. So when I watch a movie like Dead Man and then I read a book about William Blake, or Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, or the philosophy of Daoism, I make connections.
During the movie Blake (Johnny Depp) finds himself on the run from the law as well as three bounty hunters, who have been hired "exclusively" by John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum). Having shot dead Charlie Dickinson (the son of John Dickinson) he awakes to find his bullet wound being attended to by a character who goes by the name of Nobody (Gary Farmer). Nobody becomes a kind of spiritual guide for Blake and helps him through the natural world. An example of the colour and connecting elements in this movie can be observed when you see the contrasting black and white elements through the prism of the yang and yin symbol. Blake wears a white shirt and dark trousers whereas Nobody wears light colours; white, light grey; while Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen) the psychopathic bounty hunter wears black. Wilson represents the industrial revolution, Western culture and the cannibalistic nature of the capitalist system. Nobody on the other hand is the opposite, he is the light, he represents the spiritual and the natural order, he represents Native American culture. And, so it follows that Blake is lead through the world by Nobody and Wilson chases them.
The quote preceding this essay is taken from the William Blake poem "Augeries of Innocence" and it is recited by the character Nobody when William Blake (Johnny Depp) tells Nobody his name. This quote highlights the main theme running through the film and that is of the Daoist idea of yang and yin, which is the balance between opposing forces. The lines juxtapose opposing ideas of night and day (morn) and good and bad (sweet delight and endless night). During the movie we see this dichotomy play out when this scene between Blake and Nobody is then followed by a scene involving the three bounty hunters, who are on Blake's trail. The three bounty hunters are suspicious of each other and there is no trust or good will, they are in direct competition with one another to catch Blake.
It's interesting to note that the word Dao, from the word Daoism, means "the path" or "the road" and is also translated as "the way". The main plot of the film is William Blake's journey on a path from the industrial world through the natural world and then out to the ocean to the place described by Nobody as "where the water meets the sky." At the end of the movie Blake is placed in a canoe and floats out to sea. This ending subverts the usual Western trope of the hero riding off into the sunset or even just dying in a gun battle, instead Blake floats out to sea in a canoe. There is no definitive ending to the story, we are left behind, by Blake, to contemplate what is to happen to him; is he travelling on towards his new journey or is he now literally a dead man, floating across the ocean?
Jim Jarmusch explains that the use of black and white photography in this film was a way of keeping it from looking like an episode of Bonanza. Colour has its own function in film and its use by filmmakers can add another layer of meaning, and connect elements of the film with one another. However, the absence of colour is also indicative and should not be confused with an absence of meaning. The use of black and white photography can give the filmmaker more control because they no longer need to concern themselves with the worry of such a complex palette. The filmmaker does not have to be concerned with the wrong message being communicated to the spectator; black and white photography eliminates these intricacies and finer details. Joseph Campbell argues that merely through black and white imagery the artist is able to "bring forth all the inflections of the natural world."2 And, let's not forget that black and white are the colours of the Daoist symbol, the opposing sides of yang and yin.
William Blake, upon discovering a dead baby deer in the forest, investigates the deer's wound by putting his finger into it. Blake then takes the blood from the deer and rubs it into the bullet hole in his chest. It is with this mixture of blood that he proceeds to paint a line down the middle of his face. After removing his hat, Blake lays down with the deer. The dark clothes of Blake's attire in conjunction with the light and almost white pelt of the deer reminds me of the yin side of the Daoist symbol. Blake is alive the deer is dead and the two are now joined together through this blood bond. The Daoist symbol represents balance between opposing forces, and the line down the middle of Blake's face with the blood represents the balance between the two.
The Daoist symbol represents opposing ideas but, more importantly, it represents the balance between them. Originally yang represented the sunny side of a stream and yin represented the shady side.3 It is important to note that there is no moral struggle here between the opposing forces;4 these forces of dark and light are not to be confused with conflicting views in a Western sense of opposing forces. It is not an eternal battle between good and evil, but rather a balance of forces that are required to keep the world in harmony. This is the Daoist philosophy of black and white or life and death, of the feminine and the masculine, of being and nonbeing, and in the film the balance between the industrial world of humanity and the natural world that humanity occupies.
This theme of balance between opposing forces can be seen when you look at the differences and similarities between the beginning of the film and the end. At the beginning of the film, Blake travels by train to his destination, a town called Machine, with a letter informing him of an accounting job at the Dickenson Steelworks Company. This train, as well as the town of Machine, represents humanity's hubris in the face of nature. There is computer-generated imagery of smoke being emitted by a large industrial chimney, which we see as Blake enters the main street of Machine. This image is followed by many unpleasant representations of the town people: skulls, mud and filth in the streets and unhappy, mean and suspicious people. The town at the end of the film is significantly different to the town at the beginning, and the way Blake enters them both is also different and indicative of what Jarmusch is trying to say about them. It is especially significant that Blake arrives at Machine by train and enters the Native American town by boat. Blake's journey via train reflects his passive attitude to life. This mode of transport gets him from one point to another as efficiently as possible; while on this journey Blake simply observes the world go past. When he arrives at the town at the end of the film he travels by horse and then by boat. Through these modes of transport Blake engages with the world around him. No longer a passive observer, he is now part of the action.
Even though the two towns are profoundly different there is the unifying element of death. By presenting the same symbols of death (animal and human bones) ultimately they highlight the common elements between the two cultures – that we are all essentially finite beings.
Yet there is a distinctively opposing view of the Native American town when compared to the town of Machine. It is as though Machine is one side of the Daoist symbol and the Native American town is the other side. In-between is the balance between the two, and this path is the journey Blake takes.
Dead Man is an ontological investigation, a religious comparison and cultural dichotomy, bringing the poetry of William Blake to our attention and situating us in a way that questions capitalist/industrial values. The most interesting element of the film is how it presents so many ideas and concepts, but does so in such a way that it is not overstated. Therefore, rather than lacking meaning, as Ebert suggests,5 Dead Man is a film full of meaning, which can be read in many different ways.