The clanging of the wheels on tracks and the intermittent, unmistakably Western background music set the cadence of the film, as a dapper William Blake (played by Johnny Depp), an accountant from Ohio tries hard to find inspiration in the ‘Bee Journal’, out of place in his fine suit and clean looks. That done, he pulls out a pack of cards and decides to have a go at a game, casting a cursory eye on the scenery outside -on his way to a little township of ‘Machine’ in the West, where his services as a bookkeeper are needed.
On the train, he meets a fireman (played by Crispin Glover), who wants to know the reason why he’s traveling so far - he tells him his parents are dead, he has no wife and the woman he loved, his fiancée - changed her mind. The fireman tells him she found someone else, Blake looks horrified at the thought and denies the possibility; but the persistent stranger only says – “Yes, she did. Well, that doesn’t explain why you’ve come all the way out here. All the way out here to hell.” William goes onto show him a letter of employment he’s received from Dickinson Metalworks, at the town of Machine.
On arriving in the Town, Blake is informed that he is a month late and that the letter was written two months ago - they already have a new accountant. When he demands to have a word with Mr. Dickinson - the men in the office laugh their heads off! On entering the supposed office - he is greeted by a macabre sight. On the table rests a human skull with a smoking cigarette placed in an ash tray. Behind the desk hang a portrait (Dickinson?) and an open vault, with bundles of cash strewn around. Lost in his thoughts as he surveys the room, a booming voice breaks into his reverie. Seated in the chair is Mr. John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in his final role, before his death), who looks down the barrel of a sinister gun, and asks William to get out. Needless to say, he is the laughing stock of the blokes outside in the office.
Dejected and unemployed, Blake walks into a bar, hoping to buy a drink, which he swigs sitting on the stairs - just when Mili Avital (played by Thel Russell), a former harlot who now sells paper flowers; she is thrown out of the pub by a former patron, who said he liked her better when she was in her earlier profession. Blake helps her up, and offers her a drink, she in turn asks him to walk her home - she invites him inside, and he spends the night with her - almost getting shot for it by her ex Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), who ends up accidentally killing Thel, when she tries to shield Blake. In the retaliatory firing, Charlie is shot dead by William, but not before he realizes that a bullet is lodged in his chest, as well.
Fleeing on a stolen horse, he is pursued by three of John Dickinson’s (the old man is actually Charlie’s father) henchmen - who are ordered to bring him back dead or alive. Sometime during his flight, Blake must’ve lost consciousness, for when he comes to, a big American Indian called Nobody (Gary Farmer), in full regalia, is trying to tear open his chest to rid him off the bullet - he tells him he is officially “walking dead”, since the bullet is lodged very close to his heart. Mistaking the injured man for the spirit of the poet William Blake, Nobody swears to return him safely to the spirit world. Many adventures happen on their quest for this after life peace - finally, he is shot at again and as he dies, he sees Nobody is also killed before his eyes - he is taken for burial in a canoe, as he sets his last gaze on the sky, he dies.
Symbolic, since the train fireman we met at the beginning, started his monologue thus - “…remind you when you’re in the boat, and later that night you were lying, looking up at the ceiling … why is it that the landscape is moving but the boat is still?” Was William Blake just walking dead on the train?