Accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) has sold all his possessions to pay for this journey from his home in Cleveland to the West of the States because he has received a letter telling him he has a job there, at the Dickinson company. As he travels on the train carriage, the great distance he is undergoing strikes him as he slips in and out of boredom and consciousness, seeing passengers come and go, and noting that the further he travels, the rougher-looking they get. Then a fireman (Crispin Glover) he strikes up a conversation with gives him an awful warning...
Which you could have worked out from the title, but that warning spells the fate of Blake the moment he decided to step on that train: he will die. Quite how this happened was a mark of the writer and director Jim Jarmusch's deadpan sense of humour, the sort of joking that leaves you unsure of quite how funny you were meant to find this when there are other elements which came across as perfectly, soberly sincere. But if you had enjoyed his work before, chances were you would be receptive to his take on the Western genre, which naturally did not resemble anything else very much in all those decades of such films.
Exactly the reason this attracted Jarmusch was unclear from his previous films, but once the story here had begun he might as well have been making Westerns all his career, such was his obvious comfort with the style. Photographed by Robby Muller in gleaming, brooding, pin-sharp black and white, Dead Man boasted a stellar cast of cult faces, including Robert Mitchum in one of his final roles as Dickinson, the man who places a futile price on Blake's head when the accountant, who does not have the job at all, shoots his son (Gabriel Byrne) in self-defence (all violence here is very convincing). The son caught him in bed with his beloved (Mili Avatal) who Blake acted in kindness towards, but in the town of Machine no good deed goes unpunished.
Blake is the dead man because he was hit by a bullet passing through the girl as she dived in front of him to protect him, and has to go on the run when he might as well have stayed where he was since the wound is slowly killing him. But flee he does, into the surrounding woods where he meets the man who will change if not his life, then his death: a roaming, spiritual Indian outcast who calls himself Nobody (which might be a nod to Terence Hill, but then again may not). Gary Farmer played this role, one of many which saw character actors shine in ways nobody had allowed them to do before Jarmusch asked them to appear in this, making this a must for cult movie fans who liked to see their heroes stretched into interesting shapes.
But it was the spectre of Death haunting Blake so much that he becomes that force propelling the narrative, and like a dying man that plot began to unravel and wind down the closer it drew to the end. The protagonist may begin meek and insignificant, but it took the hellish circumstances which made him a fugitive facing his demise to make a man of him, as if that finality gives definition to us all. As Nobody believes he is the actual artist William Blake, he sees to it he receives a properly spiritual send-off, and the mood grows woozy and stumbles just as he does, but never quite loses sight of what matters now, if it did not before. A victim of a universe which, once it noticed him, made its business that of destroying him, Blake attracts all sorts of crazies, and much of the entertainment rests in seeing what fresh lunacy will be brought up next from Lance Henriksen as a cannibal bounty hunter to Iggy Pop in a dress. Not for everyone, certainly, but oddly compassionate as it points out the one part of life which unites us all: the mystery of what happens next. Neil Young's guitar music helps that atmosphere plenty.