The Journey West - Death Instead of Rebirth

Like many traditional Western heroes, Blake finds himself on a continuous journey West. In terms of American cultural history, the notion of the journey finds its most prominent expression in the "westering experience" popularly mythologized in the genre of the Western. It is represented as the eternal wagon train winding its way across the territories, a picturesque rendering of the nation's westward expansion.

In the dominant ideology of the Western film, the destination of this journey is presented as the American Dream come true, a new Garden of Eden and the ultimate land of opportunity, a space for freedom and adventure. Dead Man's opening sequence, however, makes clear that William Blake is doomed from the start. The fireman calls his dest ination a hell on earth where "You're just as likely to find your own grave". Here, the westward journey is associated with death rather than rebirth, it is a spiritual passage into death and through purgatory. During his initial train journey West, Blake catches sight of a string of images of death and destruction: first, there is an abandoned wagon with its canvas torn and then a group of forsaken teepees. Destruction, it seems, lies all around him, and as he continues to journey West he is slowly swallowed up by it.

 

Opening and Closure

The fact that Jarmusch's film radically reinterprets the mythic West is propably best illustrated by looking at its framing, its opening and closure. Its unusually long opening sequence pres ents the story of many traditional Westerns. This story has been told and retold countless times: it is about a youthful hero setting out to find his fortune and, usually, to return from his adventurous journeys as a new man looking upon the world with different eyes. The train ride west makes Blake a stranger to his surroundings, which suddenly present themselves as unknown and potentially hostile territory. Jarmusch here embraces the traditional motif of the naive Easterner who arrives in the Wild West in wildly inappropriate clothes, only to be confronted with the grim and violent realities of frontier life. Like any typical Eastwood character, Blake arrives completely without worldly ties; his parents are dead, his fiancÚ has left him. But while the traditional Western opening symbolizes hope and fortune by showing a landscape full of romantic heroism - the music score correspondingly grand - Jarmusch's film adheres to the restricted point of view of its protagonist William Blake stiffly sitting up in his carriage. During the seemingly endless train journey to Machine, he keeps dozing off. Rather than thrilled by the prospect of his new life, Blake is more or less bored by the monotonous journey, which is broken only now then by signs of destruction and death.

The only person Blake actually talks to during his train journey is the fireman who keeps the Iron Horse running. With uncannily bright eyes in a soot-blackened face, that fireman is a mysterious, eerie figure who confuses Blake with unsettling prophesies that will be fulfilled at the end of the film. "Look out the window," he demands of Blake, "and doesn't this remind you of when you're in a boat and then later th at night you are lying looking up at the ceiling and the water in your head is not dissimilar from the landscape and you think to yourself, why is it that the landscape is moving but the boat is still?" The fireman's words are strangely poetic for a Westerner who can't even read, which emphasizes their status as a prophetic vision of the closing scene of the movie. Having been shot twice - the first bullet still lodged near his heart - Blake is slowly drifting towards unconsciousness and death over the course of the entire movie. When his end finally draws near, Nobody places him in a canoe and lets him drift into the ocean. Borne away by the tide, Blake finally experiences the vision as it was foretold by the fireman.

The closing scenes set the Indian's white figure against the black figure of the last remaining Bounty Hunter. Occurring on the final frontier of the Western territories which also signify the realm of the Western, this final shoot-out on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. With its otherwise completely unsatisfactory (perhaps frustrating) ending, Dead Man nevertheless fulfills the convention of the traditional Western not to leave any loose ends untied, but it does so in a deliberately contrived and mechanical way, which is so obviously unmotivated that it is funny. By having Nobody and the last bounty hunter on Blake's trail shoot each other, Jarmusch neatly ties up all the loose ends just before his Western ends.