Acid Westerns: Dead Man (1995)
It is hard to write about "Dead Man" in a series of essays about Acid Westerns. It is hard because "Dead Man" is, in its own way, the only Acid Western. It's the film for which the phrase was invented by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum — we'll ignore that it was used once previously, by Pauline Kael, to describe "El Topo," because Rosenbaum was not aware of the fact when he coined the phrase.
Rosenbaum wasn't wrong that there were Westerns that could be grouped together thanks to shared themes. If I didn't believe there were films that could fairly be described as Acid Westerns, I wouldn't be writing these essays. The number of films this phrase describes is vanishingly small, a sub-genre of the revisionist Western subgenre. But there is a difference between, say, "The Misfits," Arthur Miller's bleak adult Western, and "Zachariah," in that the former is sober, mature, and exhausted, and the latter is wild and drug fueled. If we believe the myth of a generational shift between the 50s and the 60s, these movies represent them, and Acid Westerns reflect the counterculture of the younger generation.
But we have a strange circumstance here, in which the Acid Western was declared to exist in response to a later film, "Dead Man." Because Rosenbaum declared "Dead Man" to be "the fulfillment of a cherished counterculture dream, the acid western" in his original review of the film, Acid Westerns are, as a result, anything that is like "Dead Man."
There are some downsides to this approach. Rosenbaum is enamored enough with "Dead Man'' that he privileges the film's clearest influences, and so, as an example, writer Rudy Wurlitzer becomes one of the prime authors of the subgenre. Wurlitzer did, in fact, write the script for "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," and also wrote an unproduced screenplay called "Zebulon" that influenced "Dead Man" and was eventually turned into a superb novel called "The Drop Edge of Yonder."
But Wurlitzer's influence feels inflated in Rosenbaum's conception. He groups in two other Wurlizter scripts, "Glen and Randa" and "Two-Lane Blacktop," neither of which are actually Westerns; the former is a post-apocalyptic film, the latter an existential road race movie. Rosebaum also points to Wurlitzer's script for Alex Cox's 1987 film "Walker," which is a sort of near-kin to the Western, but set in Nicuragua.
As much or better a case can be made for different authorship of the Acid Western, including director Monte Hellman, who directed arguably the first two Acid Westerns, "The Shooting" and "Ride in the Whirlwind," as well as "Two-Lane Blacktop." Or we could look to Jack Nicholson, who appeared in and produced both of Hellman's Westerns, and authored "Whirlwind." Alejandro Jodorowsky seems like a bit of a one-off with "El Topo," but he directly interacted with Dennis Hopper when he made "The Last Movie" and clearly influenced "Greaser's Palace."
But "Dead Man" director Jim Jarmusch had his strongest interactions with Wurlitzer, and so, in Rosenbaum's writing, Wurlitzer becomes all-but the auteur of the genre.
Similarly, while Jarmusch is undeniably influenced by European cinema, "Dead Man" does not have any overt referenced to Italian Westerns, and so Spaghetti Westerns are left off Rosenbaum's list of Acid Westerns, despite the fact that a number of them both included drug use and directly addressed the politics and the counterculture of the 1960s.
This is not intended as criticism: Rosebbaum can construct his conception of the Acid Western as he wishes, but I will be breaking from that conception to a certain extent. For me, there are a variety of elements that make the Acid Western, and some or all might be present in any example of the sub-genre:
1. Revisionist almost to the point of making the West unrecognizable
2. Use of countercultural folk or rock and roll for the score or presence of a countercultural folk or rock singer (for these purposes, we will include Kris Kristofferson, even though he was primarily a country singer, and exclude both Elvis and Roy Orbison, who both made Westerns)
3. Use of drugs, especially hallucinogens, or implied use of these drugs
4. Use of techniques of art house cinema in production of film
5. Content of film parallels and comments on concerns of the American counterculture; these films are often explicitly anticapitalist and antiwar
These elements existed before "Dead Man," but rarely all together in one movie. "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" has a strong revisionist sensibility and the presence of both Kristofferson and Bob Dylan, who wrote the score, but nothing else from the list. "El Topo" is revisionist and very art house, but that's it. "Ride in the Whirlwind" is revisionist and seems to parallel the concerns of the 60s counterculture, but noting else.
"Dead Man," in the meanwhile, has all of the elements in one place, and so it is easy to see why Rosenbaum saw it as a fulfillment of the Acid Western. This story of a meek East Coast accountant (Johnny Depp) who travels West, gets a bullet in his chest, becomes an outlaw, and is assisted on his path to death by a Native American man (Gary Farmer), ticks off all the boxes as follows:
1. This may be the most revisionist Western ever made, with the Western landscape and characters crafted to be alien. The film's bravura opening scene, in which Depp travels West by train, is almost an absurdist short play, in which the movement West is represented by a series of short blackout scenes, growing progressively weirder and weirder. Depp's fellow passengers become fur-swaddled trappers, all carrying long rifles, and the outside landscape becomes desolate, blasted, and filled with the remnants of tragedies, from abandoned Conestoga wagons to tattered tipis.
When Depp finally arrives at his destination, a tiny one-industry town called Machine at the terminus of the railroad, it superficially resembles a Western set, with wooden building lining a dirt road, but it has been decorated for strangeness, with building covered in animal skulls like in a folk horror movie, and the streets filled with farm animals. The people here are ghastly and lawless, dressed as much in animal furs as traditional Western costumes, constantly waving guns. There is a deliberate freakishness to the cast, from Robert Mitchum playing a menacing businessman who spends most of his time talking to a stuffed bear to Lance Henriksen as a gunman with a taste for cannibalism.
2. The film is scored by Neil Young, often with searing electric guitar noises that sometimes seem to reference old, weird American folk songs and sometimes just sound like the wails of some ancient machine. Rocker Iggy Pop also appears in the film, dressed as a woman, part of a trio of oddball trappers that includes Jared Harris and a positively deranged Billy Bob Thornton (who himself seems to be referencing Andy Warhol's "Lonesome Cowboys" in insisting on asking about hair care regimes.)
3. At one point, Gary Farmer, playing a Native American man previously kidnapped by whites and stolen away to Europe, uses peyote, but the whole film has a slightly hallucinogenic quality to it.
4. The film is shot in black and white and is unmistakably a Jarmusch film, making use of elements of underground filmmaking that Jarmusch had made his signatures, including blackouts, long scenes of deadpan dialogue, and a florid literary sensibility that repeatedly references the poetry of William Blake, whose name Johnny Depp's character shares.
5. While "Dead Man" is not a product of the 1960s or '70s, and so doesn't specifically reference the politics of the era, it does share a radical worldview that seems inspired by the era. It is especially interested in the experience of Native Americans as individual characters and the West as a history of genocide, more so than any film except, perhaps, Arthur Penn's 1970 film "Little Big Man." The film also has an unmistakable anticapitalist sensibility, as it represents the genocide of the Native peoples as being part of the process that cleared the way for predatory industrialization.
I should note that "Dead Man" is also hard to write about because Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote an entire book about the film, including interviews with Jarmusch, so the film is pretty well-trod ground, at least by Rosenbaum.
Rosenbaum talks at length about the presence of Gary Farmer as the character Nobody. As I have said elsewhere, it is a bit of a task for a White writer to critique the representation of Native Americans onscreen, and it is an area where we will necessarily fall short.
I feel comfortable saying that Farmer is superb in the role — he is wry, human, and given so many offbeat character moments that he is functionally the main character in the film; Johnny Depp's character, by comparison, is extraordinarily passive and blank. Farmer's character in inspired by actual stories of Native boys who were kidnapped to Europe, such as Squanto, the Patuxet man who essentially single-highhandedly saved the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock from starving to death. He had been kidnapped as a boy and taken to Spain and England, and somehow escaped back to America.
Jarmusch also takes great efforts to slowly recenter Native Americans in the story. He strove for historical accuracy in representing the various tribes, and had Native characters speak in their indigenous languages without translation. At the climax of the film, Depp is brought to a painstaking recreated Makah village, built by Makah Indians for the film in a scene that duplicates Depp's hallucinogenic walk through Machine at the start of the film.
Here we see that the West wasn't the savage wasteland it is often represented as, but instead the home to Native civilizations, with their own towns, their own systems of government and barter, and their own technology (the Makah longhouse has an extremely complicated entry system). Rosenbaum comments that "Dead Man" is unique in that is presumes the film will include a Native audience, and is, in part, for them.
But he is also troubled by the film's end, in which Depp is placed in a Makah canoe and pushed off the coast into the ocean as the culmination of a spiritual voyage toward death, while Farmer dies in a strangely theatrical face-off with a gunfighter on the shore, shot at a great distance.
I am uncomfortable with this as well, because it highlights that, as much as Farmer's character is represented as a full character, narratively he is still subordinate to Depp's story. He's not living out his own destiny, but instead assisting Depp in living out his, even taking charge of it for much of the film, suffusing it with spiritual and supernatural meaning.
This type of character isn't a new one in film. There are a lot of movies about quirky women who exist primarily to act as helpmates for men on their journey to maturity; this phenomenon is so common that the character was given a mocking name by Nathan Rabin, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
There is a parallel character, a spiritual Black character that likewise exists to assist in the story of a white man, called the Magical Negro by Spike Lee. As, as much as Jarmusch tried to recenter the Indian experience in this story, there is no getting past the fact that Gary Farmer's character is the Indian equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or the Magical Negro in this film.
I guess this is not surprising. The Western is a White man's genre, and, to the best of my ability to tell, has never been addressed by a Native American filmmaker, with the lone exception of the Johnny Cash film "A Gunfight," which was produced by the Jicarilla Apache tribe but did not address the Native experience. There have been a few films that made Native Americans the main characters, including the Burl Lancaster film "Apache" and "Geronimo: An American Legend," which starred Cherokee actor Wes Studi, but these films were made by White directors and primarily detailed Indian interactions with White people.
I do think it has been done better than in "Dead Man," though. The Native characters in "Little Big Man" intersected with the title character's life, but, when he was away, went on and had their own lives. One actor from the film, Chief Dan George, had the secondary lead in Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales," in which he doesn't exist to support Eastwood's narrative, but instead irritably partners with him because they have common goals.
It's a bit disappointing that Jarmusch, who everywhere else rejected the conventions of the Western, had such a blind spot for such a depressing trope, that Indians exist in Westerns to forward the story of White men.