Jim Jarmusch’s latest movie, Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray, is absolutely lovely, and perhaps my favorite thing Jarmusch has ever done. A big part of the reason is Bill Murray. I feel like I could watch Murray for hours, just sitting on the living room couch as he often does in this film. It’s hard to describe, or do full justice to, the persona Murray has evolved in his recent work for Wes Anderson, and especially for Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), and now Jarmusch. He’s moody and melancholic, in contrast to the manic comedy that first made him famous. But of course there was already a kind of silent, intense yearning behind the frantic hysteria of Murray’s characters in films like the great What About Bob?. In Broken Flowers, a kind of mournful passivity is all that’s left of this yearning; Murray’s Don Johnston is (as the character’s name suggests) a sort of Don Juan, who has found no lasting satisfaction in any of his erotic conquests, and now, in a financially comfortable middle age, has no ambitions and nothing to look forward to. To call Murray’s acting style here minimalist and deadpan would be accurate, but inadequate. Don Johnston isn’t really a blank slate; he’s weary but goes on anyway; he understates all his emotional reactions, but he is far from affectless. Murray’s pauses are eloquent in their suggestiveness; he fully expresses feelings and responses with the tiniest, slowest gestures and facial tics. But that’s not quite an accurate description either; it isn’t that Murray suggests and expresses a lot with a little; it’s rather that this “little” is what he is expressing, quite accurately and fully proportionally. Don Johnston is somebody who has found life to be disappointing; but he doesn’t feel betrayed or outraged by this disappointment, he merely takes it in stride, because he knows that it is all that anyone can reasonably expect — or better, that it is all that anyone will ever get, no matter what they expect). It’s a kind of weary, melancholy stoicism that is nonetheless as far from despair as it is from exhilaration and joie de vivre. I’m reminded of Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas, or of Ozu’s Tokyo Story.
(I should add also that the long-ago lovers whom Don Johnston contacts 20 years later, in a vain attempt to discover whether he has a son, are wonderfully acted also, especially the performances of Sharon Stone and Jessica Lange. There’s also the great manic supporting peformance of the always-brilliant — and always underrated — Jeffrey Wright).
All this makes Murray a perfect leading man for Jim Jarmusch, whose films are always about missed connections, disappointments and misunderstandings, and (excuse the metaphor) pregnant pauses that end only in miscarriages. At his worst, Jarmusch can be snide, irritatingly self-congratulatory, and quite sappy beneath all the hipster posturing. At his best, however, as here, he is very nearly sublime. I admired Jarmusch’s last two real features, the deconstructed Western Dead Man, with Johnny Depp, and the colder-than-ice gangster/samurai Ghost Dog, with Forest Whitaker, both of which made brilliant use of their leading men; but I think that in Broken Flowers, and with Murray, Jarmusch has outdone himself. His visual style, with long pauses, elliptical cuts, and an emphasis on journeys rather than destinations, is perfectly pitched for this inconclusive story about a man who sort-of confronts his past, but has no epiphanies, revelations, or moments of Proustian recollection. Jarmusch’s films are slow, but their tempo is never simply drawn-out or undifferentiated; Broken Flowers is perfectly paced in its evocation of reluctant retrospection. Jarmusch has always juxtaposed moments of (understated, but genuine) feeling with moments of absurdist deadpan humor; in some films, the effect is deliberately jarring and deconstructive, but here there’s an almost seamless blending of these modes, so that nearly all the incidents in the film seem ludicrous and touching at the same time. All in all, Broken Flowers is a very nearly impalpable film, slipping through one’s grasp, but leaving the ghosts of decayed emotions behind to haunt you.