William Blake (Johnny Depp), an accountant from Cleveland, Ohio, rides by train to the frontier company town of Machine to assume a promised job as an accountant in the town's metal works. During the trip, the train Fireman warns Blake against the enterprise while passengers shoot buffalo from the train windows. Arriving in town, Blake discovers that the position has already been filled, and he is driven from the workplace at gunpoint by John Dickinson, the ferocious owner of the company. Jobless and without money or prospects, Blake meets Thel Russell, a former prostitute who sells paper flowers. He lets her take him home. Thel's ex-boyfriend Charlie surprises them in bed and shoots at Blake, accidentally killing Thel when she tries to shield Blake with her body. A wounded Blake shoots and kills Charlie with Thel's gun before climbing dazedly out the window and fleeing Machine on a stolen horse. Company-owner Dickinson just happens to be Charlie's father, and he hires three legendary frontier killers, Cole Wilson, Conway Twill, and Johnny "The Kid" Pickett to bring Blake back 'dead or alive'.
Blake awakens to find a large Native American attempting to dislodge the bullet from his chest. The Native American, calling himself Nobody, reveals that the bullet is too close to Blake's heart to remove, and Blake is effectively walking dead. When he learns Blake's full name, Nobody decides Blake is a reincarnation of William Blake, a poet whom he idolizes but of whom accountant Blake himself is ignorant. Nobody resolves to escort Blake to the Pacific Ocean to return him to his proper place in the spirit-world.
Blake and Nobody travel west, leaving a trail of dead and encountering wanted posters announcing higher and higher bounties for Blake's death or capture. Blake learns of Nobody's past, marked both by Native American and white racism; it is detailed that he is the product of lovers from two opposing tribes, and how as a child he was abducted by English soldiers and brought to Europe as a model savage. He was briefly educated and learned of the proper William Blake's art and poetry before returning home, where his stories of the white man and his culture were laughed off by fellow Native Americans. He gained his name, Nobody, at this point, the literal translation of which is revealed to be "He who talks loud, saying nothing". Nobody leaves Blake alone in the wild when he decides Blake must undergo a vision quest. On his quest, Blake kills two U.S. Marshals, experiences visions of nature spirits, and grieves over the remains of a dead fawn that was killed accidentally by his pursuers. He paints his face with the fawn's blood and rejoins Nobody on their journey. Meanwhile, the most ferocious member of the bounty hunter posse, Cole Wilson, has killed his comrades (eating one of them) and continued his hunt alone.
At a trading post, a bigoted missionary identifies Blake and attempts to kill him but is killed by Blake, instead. Shortly after, Blake is shot again; and his condition rapidly deteriorates. Nobody takes him by river to a Makah village and convinces the tribe to give him a canoe for Blake's ship burial. Delirious, Blake trudges through the village before collapsing from his injuries. He awakens in a canoe on a beach wearing Native American funeral dress. Nobody bids Blake farewell and then pushes the canoe out to sea. As he floats away, Blake watches Cole sneak up behind Nobody; but he is too weak to cry out and can only watch as the two shoot and kill each other. As he looks up at the sky one last time, Blake dies and his canoe drifts out into the sea.Johnny Depp as William Blake, a meek accountant from Cleveland, Ohio
Gary Farmer as Nobody, a strong and opinionated Native American who was forcibly raised by whites and later given the mocking name "He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing" or Exaybachay by fellow natives
Crispin Glover as Train Fireman, a coal-covered boilerman who welcomes Blake to the "hell" of Machine
Robert Mitchum as John Dickinson, a shotgun-toting industrialist in Machine (Mitchum's final film role before his death in 1997)
John Hurt as John Scholfield, the business manager of Dickinson's factory
Mili Avital as Thel Russell, a former prostitute who makes and sells paper flowers
Gabriel Byrne as Charlie Dickinson, Thel's ex-boyfriend and John Dickinson's son
Lance Henriksen as Cole Wilson, an infamous bounty hunter and murderous cannibal
Michael Wincott as Conway Twill, a talkative bounty hunter
Eugene Byrd as Johnny "The Kid" Pickett, a young bounty hunter
Iggy Pop as Salvatore "Sally" Jenko, a cross-dressing, Bible-reading fur trader at a campsite
Billy Bob Thornton as Big George Drakoulious, a mountain man at Sally's campsite
Jared Harris as Benmont Tench, a knife-toting fur trader at Sally's campsite
Alfred Molina as Trading Post Missionary, a corrupt missionary and businessman
Gibby Haynes as Man with gun in alley
Michelle Thrush as Nobody's girlfriend
There are multiple references in the film to the poetry of William Blake. Exaybachay aka Nobody recites from several Blake poems, including Auguries of Innocence, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and The Everlasting Gospel. When bounty hunter Cole warns his companions against drinking from standing water, it references the Proverb of Hell (from the aforementioned Marriage), "Expect poison from standing water". Thel's name is also a reference to Blake's The Book of Thel. The scenes with Thel culminating in the bedroom murder scene visually enact Blake's poem, "The Sick Rose: "O rose, thou art sick!/ The invisible worm/ That flies in the night,/ In the howling storm,/ Has found out thy bed,/ Of crimson joy,/ And his dark secret love/ Does thy life destroy." The film's soundtrack album and promotional music video also features Depp reciting passages from Blake's poetry to the music composed by Neil Young for the film.
Although the film is set in the 19th century, Jarmusch included a number of references to 20th century American culture. Benmont Tench, the man at the campsite played by Jared Harris, is named after Benmont Tench, keyboardist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Billy Bob Thornton's character, Big George Drakoulias, is named for record producer George Drakoulias. The marshals chasing Blake are named Lee Hazlewood and Marvin Throne-berry, after Lee Hazlewood and Marv Throneberry, and it is also an allusion to the American actor Lee Marvin. Nobody's name ("He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing") is a reference to the James Brown song Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing. Michael Wincott's character is shown in possession of a Teddy bear. Also, when asked his name, Exaybachay states, "My Name is Nobody." My Name is Nobody was an Italian Western film from 1973 starring Henry Fonda and Terence Hill.
Dead Man is generally regarded as being extremely well researched in regard to Native American culture.
The film is also notable as one of the rather few films about Native Americans to be directed by a non-native and offer nuanced and considerate details of the individual differences between Native American tribes free of common stereotypes. The film contains conversations in the Cree and Blackfoot languages, which were intentionally not translated or subtitled, for the exclusive understanding of members of those nations, including several in-jokes aimed at Native American viewers. The Native character was also played by an Indigenous American actor, Gary Farmer, who is a Cayuga.
The film was entered into the 1995 Cannes Film Festival.
In its theatrical release, Dead Man earned $1,037,847 on a budget of $9 million. Then, it was the most expensive of Jarmusch's films, due, in part, to the costs of ensuring accurate period detail.
Critical responses were mixed to positive. Roger Ebert gave the film one-and-a-half stars (out of four stars maximum), noting "Jim Jarmusch is trying to get at something here, and I don't have a clue what it is". Desson Howe and Rita Kempley, both writing for the Washington Post, offered largely negative appraisals. Greil Marcus, however, mounted a spirited defense of the film, titling his review "Dead Again: Here are 10 reasons why 'Dead Man' is the best movie of the end of the 20th century." Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum dubbed the film an acid western, calling it "as exciting and as important as any new American movie I've seen in the 90s" and went on to write a book on the film, entitled Dead Man (ISBN 0-85170-806-4) published by the British Film Institute. The film scored a 'Fresh' 71% rating on website Rotten Tomatoes.
In July 2010, New York Times chief film critic A. O. Scott capped a laudatory "Critics' Picks" video review of the film by calling it "One of the very best movies of the 1990s."
Neil Young recorded the soundtrack by improvising (mostly on his electric guitar, with some acoustic guitar, piano and organ) as he watched the newly edited film alone in a recording studio. The soundtrack album consists of seven instrumental tracks by Young, with dialog excerpts from the film and Johnny Depp reading the poetry of William Blake interspersed between the music.
Gary Farmer makes a cameo appearance as Nobody in Jarmusch's subsequent film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, in which he repeats one of his signature lines of dialog, "Stupid fucking white man!"
Johnny Depp makes a brief cameo as William Blake in Mika Kaurismäki's film L.A. Without a Map.
Rudy Wurlitzer's un-produced screenplay Zebulon inspired Jarmusch's film. Wurlitzer later re-wrote the screenplay as the novel The Drop Edge of Yonder (2008).