Back on Halloween, I posted about Leiji Matsumoto’s anime Gun Frontier over at David Lee Summers’ Web Journal. I argued that the series was an acid western. The term was coined by reviewer Jonathan Rosenbaum to describe the 1995 film Dead Man starring Johnny Depp. I finally had a chance to see Dead Man, which I found at once dark, surreal, and not a little disturbing. In many ways, Dead Man and Gun Frontier are indeed cut of the same cloth.
Dead Man tells the story of an accountant named William Blake who is promised a job and travels well to the town of Machine. At the town’s one, large factory, Blake learns someone has already been hired to fill the job. Despondent, Blake goes to the saloon, meets a local girl and they immediately have a liaison. Afterwards, the girl’s ex-lover appears, hoping to make up. Blake and the lover exchange gun fire. After which, the girl and the lover end up dead despite Blake’s lack of skill with a gun. Unknown to Blake, the lover is the factory owner’s son.
Blake runs, but he is wounded and passes out. He’s awaken by a Native American man who is trying to dig the bullet from his chest. The Native American man, who calls himself Nobody, then nurses Blake back to health. When Blake is well enough to talk, Nobody believes the accountant is really the famous poet reincarnated, only now he will make poetry with his guns and kill white people.
The factory owner—played by Robert Mitchum in his last role—sends three bounty hunters after Blake. The three bounty hunters squabble and eventually the most ruthless of the three kills the other two, and even eats one of them. Meanwhile, Blake kills two U.S. Marshals and experiences visions. All of this is accompanied by a haunting guitar score by Neil Young.
In his review of Dead Man, Jonathan Rosenbaum argued that not only does an acid western have a hallucinogenic quality, it’s the polar opposite of the traditional western, which is a journey of hope. An acid western is a journey toward death and decay. In that sense, an acid western is reminiscent of a horror. Horror can certainly have a hallucinogenic quality if reality is called into question and the journey of an acid western is often one that forces us to look at our most primal fear, the inevitability of death.