The American West is definitely mythological terrain, perhaps even more so than ancient Greece. And no one has ripped open and laid those myths bare quite like Jim Jarmusch, in his 1995 film Dead Man. Almost two decades after its release, I chanced to watch this violent, puzzling and overwhelmingly intelligent film a second time. Intrigued, I consulted a bunch of old reviews of the movie, hoping to gain insight into its deeper meanings, but all the reviews seemed to skate nimbly across the celluloid surface, commenting on performance, cinematography, pacing and so on. But nothing about deeper meanings and unresolved questions. So I’m taking that on myself, seventeen years after the fact.

The film’s time is the 1880’s. Depp plays a young man from Cleveland, heading West on the train to a promised accounting job in a town called Machine, somewhere in the US southwest. The first few scenes on the train set the stage for dislocation: every time Depp wakes up from dozing off, there is a different set of passengers, each rougher and more threatening than the previous set. We’re not shown what Depp sees as he looks out the train window, but he is obviously disturbed by the increasingly stark landscapes as the train heads west.

Machine turns out to be a company town, dominated by a massive, clanking metalworks run by the obviously dying Robert Mitchum (in his last film appearance). Machine-both the town and the factory-are an absolute dystopia. Depp has a brief liaison with a young woman, is wounded by her ex-lover (Mitchum’s son, played by Gabriel Byrne), kills him in self-defense, and flees the town into the wilderness.

Pursued by a host of bounty hunters, Depp is rescued by Nobody, a savvy Indian played by the wonderful Gary Farmer, a Canadian native actor. That is when the real movie starts, carefully investigating the complex relationship developing between a helpless, wounded Cleveland accountant and an idiosyncratic, bush-savvy Indian. As a boy, Nobody was captured by whites and taken to England to be educated. After some years he escapes and returns to the wilds of the  American West, but not before memorizing the poetry of William Blake. Depp’s character happens to be named William Blake, and Nobody tries mightily and unsuccessfully to get the Cleveland William Blake to take ownership of the poems of the English William Blake, between bouts of gunplay with the bounty hunters.

To mild-mannered Depp/Blake’s surprise, he is born to killing, and dispatches the bounty hunters as they appear. But he is wounded and hallucinating; his powerful sense of dislocation is matched by the alien, exotic landscapes he and Nobody pass through. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Nobody is not helping Blake escape; he is taking him on a journey. The journey is a grand ecological transect of the West, from Arizona to the Olympic Peninsula. From dry sagebrush, through pinyon pine, ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, Douglas-fir and finally, to cedar rainforest. The mortally wounded Blake begins to realize that this journey is also a transect from life to death, and that Nobody is his respectful guide. In the moving final scene, Nobody and the Makah villagers prepare and launch Blake’s death canoe into the mouth of a river that flows into the Pacific Ocean. The scene was shot in Neah Bay; you can’t get much farther West than that.

Nobody is the central character of Dead Man; Depp/Blake is a passive mirror. Why does Nobody take on this ruinous task of escorting Depp? Why is he committed to convincing Depp/Blake that he is the real William Blake, when he knows it is not the case? What native language is Nobody speaking, as he converses with Arizona Apaches and north coast Makahs? Why does he abandon Blake and then rejoin him, much to the displeasure of a lady friend?

The film is shot in gorgeous black and white, broken up into short scenes with momentary blank screens in between. Neil Young provides a haunting (and occasionally monotonous) guitar score. Jarmusch, who wrote and directed, gives a raft of good actors brief moments on screen, and then kills them off. Mitchum gets a few minutes; Gabriel Byrne barely lasts thirty seconds. Billy Bob Thornton gets a mini-cameo, and Alfred Molina takes a fatal bullet while you are still savoring the surprise of his presence. A gutsy director, to casually snuff out talent of that caliber.

Mythologies become boring with standard interpretations. Perhaps that is why I was so attracted to Dead Man, Days of Heaven, and even Rango, for that matter: they reinterpret the West from wonderfully unique and bizarre perspectives. Jarmusch, who grew up in Ohio, is surely that innocent moving through the savage and incomprehensible human and ecological landscapes of the early American West, trying to make sense of it all.