Jim Jarmusch – one of the few contemporary American feature filmmakers who can truly claim the label of independent – hit a peak with Dead Man (1995) and Ghost Dog (1999). But the cataclysm of 11 September 2001 put a brake on Jarmusch; he reportedly shelved a "very violent" and politically anti-American film, taking a few years off to rethink his approach.
Both Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) and now Broken Flowers show Jarmusch treading water. He has retreated to the everyday-life-and-relationships whimsy of his early films, such as Night on Earth (1991). Even his cinematic style has regressed – back to the simplistic, one-point-at-a-time pacing and manner of his Stranger than Paradise (1984).
Broken Flowers may well be Jarmusch's most conventional project. What was distinctive about the otherwise underwhelming Coffee and Cigarettes was Jarmusch's very modernist sense of formal repetition – obsessively repeating certain patterns, motifs and lines of dialogue regardless of the storyline, situation or theme. In Broken Flowers, even these nutty repetitions (of flowers, or the colour pink) are given a narrative justification.
The episodic road movie plot sets Don (Bill Murray, doing his frazzled and sardonic speciality) in search of the son he never knew he had – on the prompting of an unsigned letter from a past girlfriend. Naturally, Don – who is constantly annoyed at being described as a Don Juan – needs to look up a string of very different women, colourfully played by a cast that includes Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton.
As a rather obvious exchange in the film tell us, what most matters to Jarmusch is "living in the present" – not raking over the past or divining the future. Accordingly, much of the backstory involving Don's ex-girlfriends remains resolutely murky, and a solution to the plot's mystery element is left wide open.
In the "now" that the film sometimes flatly records, we observe Don's hesitant, occasionally hilarious interaction with people and places. Broken Flowers reminded me of many Aussie screen and television comedies of suburban life in its cruel documentation of kitsch interior designs – and, in its darker moments, evokes (no doubt coincidentally) the photographic studies by Australian artists Bill Henson or Jane Burton of sexual yearning in miserable weatherboard surroundings.
Do not go to this film expecting either a high-concept, quirky comedy like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) or an exotic love story like Lost in Translation (2003), to name two previous Murray vehicles. Broken Flowers is a modest, slight work, but its fragile, introspective mood is likely to stay with you for quite a while.
MORE Bill Murray: Groundhog Day
© Adrian Martin December 2005