Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dead Man -- Journey with Nobody to Nowhere

Director: Jim Jarmusch, 1995. (R)

Jarmusch's moodily elegiac black and white Western is as unlike an old John Ford film as chalk is from cheese. Indeed, it is more of a Greek tragedy, moving inexorably to an inevitable conclusion.

Even before the opening credits we see William Blake (Johnny Depp) sitting on a west-bound train like a duck out of water. Dressed in a checkerboard suit but surrounded by hunters with rifles and coon-skin hats, Blake the accountant is leaving behind the life he has known for the great unknown of the wild west. His parents have died; his fiancee has left him. So he has sold everything for a one-way ticket from Cleveland to Machine, the outpost town at the literal end of the line. With a couple of dollars in his pocket, and a letter offering a job from John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), the owner of the Machine Metalworks, Blake is looking for a new beginning.

During this physical opening journey, the train fireman (Crispin Glover), the first of many weird and freaky characters Blake will meet, sits opposite him and ominously declares, "I'll tell you one thing for sure . . . I wouldn't trust no words written down on no piece of paper, especially from no Dickinson out in the town of Machine . . . you're just as likely to find your own grave." When he arrives in Machine, he sees death all-around. It is almost a picture of hell, where things are wild and where laws mean little.

But his job does not await, and Blake finds himself penniless and jobless in an unfriendly town. When he helps a woman circumstances conspire against him, and before his first night is through a double murder leaves him wounded and fleeing on a stolen horse. This is a cruel and chaotic world that is counter to the carefully lined up columns of accounting. With three bounty hunters, led by the callous Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), sent after him by Dickinson, Blake is in a world of trouble.

When Blake awakes from a tumble from his horse, he finds himself being helped by a native Indian. "What is your name?" he asks. The befeathered native replies, "Nobody." When Blake wants to know what this means, Nobody answers, "My name is Exaybachay. He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing. . . I preferred to be called Nobody."

Talking too much and saying nothing is simply expelling a lot of hot air and wasting other people's time. Nobody (Gary Farmer) told tales to his tribe but they disbelieved him and so named him as saying nothing. The book of Proverbs has much to say about our speech. Talking too much can lead to sin: "When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise" (Prov. 10:19). Further, "Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent" (Prov. 17:28). When we talk too much or too loudly rather than being heard and being considered knowledgable, we are seen as babbling fools or pompous idiots. Wisdom often stays silent. Too much talk can lead to gossip, lying or other sins.

When Nobody asks Blake his name, Nobody is elated to hear it is William Blake. He thinks he is the English poet, though that Blake died in the first part of the 19th century, years earlier. Nobody's story unfolds throughout the film, but he has been educated and loves Blake's poems. Throughout the film Nobody quotes lines from Blake's poetry, such as "the eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to the crow" and "the vision of Christ that thou dost see is my vision's greatest enemy." It is ironic that this Indian is better educated and more sophisticated than the white bounty hunters.

Jarmusch has created an almost poetic western. He uses slow fades in and out to communicate Blake's falling in and out of consciousness, as he battles to live. Neil Young's moody guitar adds to the surreal ghostly effect. Dead Man paints a realistic picture of the West, down to the dirt and mud of the streets, and the ingredients of the meals the cowboys eat. As a road movie, it is episodic filled with ugly characters. But a journey it is, a journey to nowhere, but nevertheless a journey of discovering the fragility of life. This is the tale of the tragic transformation from accountant to poetic gunslinging outlaw.

As Blake travels with Nobody, he hears the native's story, one that is both tragic and inspiring. Ripped from his tribe as a boy, when he returns as a man he is ignored and ridiculed. He is cast out to live a solitary life. But he accepted his situation in humility, seeing in it a spiritual reason.

This reminds us of the man Jesus, sent from above to live on this earth (Jn. 1:14; 6:42). He came as a Jew to his own people but they rejected him (Jn. 1:11), calling him a liar and blasphemer (Matt. 26:65). He, too, accepted the situation, recognizing the spiritual reason: he had a mission to perform. He trusted himself in humility to his God (Matt. 26:42).

In two of the episodes, "Christians" appear. The first shows three cowboys (including Billy Bob Thornton and Iggy Pop) ready to eat their meal of beans. To say grace, one reads from the Bible: "This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee . . ." (1 Sam. 17:46). This is not a typical prayer before meals, and these are not typical Christians, as is evident as the scene plays out. In the second scene, a trader (Alfred Molino, Chocolat) seems filled with hatred. None of these Christians appear to be following or loving Jesus.

These scenes made me think of the harsh and fateful words Jesus spoke at the culmination of his sermon on the mount:
Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' (Matt. 7:21-23)
Appearances can be deceiving. It is not what we say that matters. It is how we live in light of who we love. If we love Jesus, it will be evident in our lives.

Like Blake, we are on a spiritual journey. We are all dead men (and women) trying to wake up to life, seeking to enter the realm of the living. If we follow Nobody we will end up nowhere, just like Blake. On the other hand, if we follow Jesus (Matt. 4:19), we will end up in heaven with him some day (Jn. 14:2).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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