“This is my story, or part of it. I don’t expect it to explain all that much, but what’s a story anyway except one of those connect the dots drawings that in the end forms a picture of something?”
This is one of the first lines in Jim Jarmusch’s first feature, Permanent Vacation. It’s hard to think of another example in which a director so perfectly lays out their vision—not only for that particular film, but for their entire career—right off the bat. One of the most singular and influential American indie filmmakers, Jarmusch has always focused on the distinct behavior and philosophy of his characters. That is, he shows a clear disinterest in the machinations of plot and structure, instead pinpointing personality and soul in what appear on the surface to be mundane conversations and musings, thus paving the way for the likes of everyone from Richard Linklater to Kevin Smith.
In yet another perfect bit of self-analysis that foreshadowed his legacy, his logline for his second feature, Stranger Than Paradise, describes him as “an imaginary Eastern European director obsessed with Ozu and The Honeymooners.” His technical execution is drenched in foreign art house sensibilities, while his characters, even the ones who aren’t American, translate his pop culture nostalgia into contemporary banter.
So, as a celebration of his new film The Dead Don’t Die, and his four decades of swimming against the stream of the Hollywood system while retaining a discretely American identity, let’s rank all 13 of Jarmusch’s fictional features, from worst to best. Accordingly, his shorts, music videos and documentaries—the Neil Young tour film Year of the Horse and Stooges doc Gimme Danger—aren’t included.
It’s shocking that Jarmusch, who with Ghost Dog rewrote the rules of the hitman movie only ten years prior, could produce something so pedantic, pretentious and one-note within the same genre. The whole interminable affair plays out as a series of awkwardly connected episodic sequences between a nameless hitman (Isaach De Bankole) and assorted Jarmusch regulars—who all look stiff enough to know the staleness of the material—spouting high school philosophy with a self-aware pop culture veneer. That is, until we get to the climax: The hitman’s rich and criminal target (Bill Murray) delivers the hacky Hollywood “you don’t know how the world works!” speech without a hint of irony. The borderline biblical anti-greed message is not only repeated via dialogue ad infinitum, but even pops up in a song later on, just in case you didn’t get it.
As established by George Romero, zombies can be and are used as metaphors for various sociopolitical issues. So Jarmusch’s idea of linking the undead to humans’ inactivity and ignorance on climate change sounds like a winning formula for our times. If only Jarmusch didn’t employ such a snarky, almost trollish “I’m better than this” mentality to the genre. Half the dialogue spells out the metaphor without a hint of tact or subtlety, while the other half alludes to the most obvious pop culture influences. Take the quick line in the original Dawn of the Dead about how the zombies who come to the mall are reliving a past life, copy-paste it to almost the entire runtime while removing any creative gore or action and you get The Dead Don’t Die. Jarmusch briefly lets himself get lost in wanton absurdity during the film’s climax, resulting in some hilarious self-awareness, but otherwise the film is a major miss.
In Jarmusch’s feature debut, a true blue New York bohemian (Chris Parker) wanders the city bumping into various eccentric figures in this clear inspiration for Linklater’s Slacker. While that indie staple crackled with youthful idealism, Permanent Vacation heavily indulges in its protagonist’s ennui and primal lack of interest in the society that surrounds him. Thus, we are presented with what could have been a 30-minute short padded out with overlong establishing shots and stuffy voice-over musings about literature, art and existence in general. It certainly promises what’s to come in more refined and financially secure work in Jarmusch’s future, but this one is for completionists only. One major bright spot marks the beginning of the collaboration between Jarmusch and jazz musician John Lurie, whose improvisational score captures the protagonist’s wandering mind.
Coffee and Cigarettes feels nondescript, a Jarmusch palate cleanser of sorts, a series of 11 short films depicting various personalities—some celebrities playing themselves, some not—shooting the shit while consuming the titular items, playing out like a compilation of DVD extras Jarmusch filmed during breaks in feature production. In fact, that’s how his first Coffee and Cigarettes short, shot in conjunction with 1986’s Down By Law, came to be in the first place. No distinctive narrative links connect the shorts, and one’s enjoyment of each will more than likely depend on emotional connections to the celebrities starring in them. The original short, a droll odd coupling of Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni, with Wright pitching his ideas for coffee inventions to Benigni (who doesn’t understand him), is still the best distillation of the concept. Cate Blanchett bickering with her identical “cousin” is also a delight of an acting exercise.
This post-modern western that admittedly propels the genre into uncharted nihilistic territory delivers a gorgeous and hypnotic technical execution thanks to DP Robby Muller’s black-and-white cinematography and Neil Young’s distorted, improvisational guitar score. Dead Man’s story centers on a fresh-faced accountant (Johnny Depp) on the run after getting involved in the killing of an important town figure and shot during the scuffle. His Native American companion (Gary Farmer) informs him that he’s already a dead man and should make his peace with his inevitable demise. The intimate themes surrounding the protagonist’s eventual acceptance of death creates a western diorama that manages to be both fatalistic and spiritual. Still, the film’s episodic structure, in which Depp’s character converses with racists and criminals before shooting them in increasingly slapstick fashions, tends to lag, as does an atonal uber-violent Three Stooges sub-plot about the hired guns (Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott and Eugene Byrd) on the accountant’s trail.
Broken Flowers is as close to a traditional romantic comedy we’ll probably ever get from Jarmusch. Told through the auteur’s usual anthological narrative, it centers on a middle-aged Don Juan type literally named Don (Bill Murray), receiving a mysterious letter about one of his affairs producing a son who’s now 19, compelling him to reconnect with his exes in order to figure out the identity of the mother. Of course this paper-thin plot is used merely as a way to potently explore the idea of regret, as well as Don’s inherent need to find some answers to the existential crisis he suffers after his girlfriend (Julie Delphy) leaves him. In keeping with his character, of course, Don tries to find that answer in women, only to gradually come to the basic but vital understanding that time moves on, that those who might have once been a source of youthful innocence might now represent stark pragmatism, and vice versa. Aside from that, Broken Flowers is a genial journey that draws immense goodwill from Murray’s charisma and the talents of its cast of women.
The taxi ride offers a curious social experience: We engage in some of the richest and most significant conversations of our lives with drivers we will more than likely never see again, resulting in bite-sized but profound human connections. In tune with this sentiment, Jarmusch constructs a film made up of five cab rides taking place in five cities around the world. In LA, Winona Ryder’s mechanic gives Gena Rowland’s elitist Hollywood power player a ride while discussing her dreams in life. In New York, an immigrant driver (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who used to be a clown in his homeland entertains Brooklyn native Yo Yo (Giancarlo Esposito in his friendlier take on Do The Right Thing’s Buggin Out) in this charming tale on the importance of laughter. In Paris, a bitter driver from the Ivory Coast (Isaach De Bankole) becomes obsessed with his blind passenger (Beatrice Dalle) in an uneven tale that nevertheless sports passionate performances. In Helsinki, Jarmusch closes his film with the flimsiest of the set as a depressed driver (Matti Pellonpaa) tells a horrific story to his passengers (all recently laid off), delivering a grade-school message about perspective. The clear winner is the fourth short, taking place in Rome, a comedy masterpiece about a motormouth driver (Roberto Benigni) forcing a confession on his priest passenger (Paolo Bonacelli). He starts with his sexual attraction to sheep and somehow manages to move onto various deeper depravities as the priest desperately seeks a way out of the conversation.
Most films about bloodsuckers who are hundreds of years old contextualize immortality as an exotic gift full of ultimate knowledge and sophistication. While the knowledge and sophistication might be part and parcel of Jarmusch’s vampires’ experience, this subdued melodrama tackles an aspect seldom evaluated: that such an unending, humdrum existence will ultimately result in depression. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a famous musician living in Detroit, tired of seeing humans—whom he refers to as “zombies”—deliberately destroying their surroundings and making a mockery of their nature, especially after the rise of the industrial age. Centuries of the same life and he no longer feels connected to the outside world, contemplating ending it all as he goes through the motions of playing his music and stealing blood from labs, while his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton)—I know, the names are head-slappingly unsophisticated—keeps her depression at bay by living in Tangiers, a city defined by the past. Eve visits Adam after being worried for his mental well-being, resulting in a series of trademark Jarmusch banter about whether or not the modern world can accommodate such old fashioned beings. This simple but captivating premise briefly gets muddled with a sitcom tone as Eve’s too-cool-for-school sister (Mia Wasikowska) barges in and creates a Two and a Half Vampires dynamic. Thankfully, the third act course corrects back to unapologetic melancholy.
Jarmusch’s most plot-heavy and accessible work also forced audiences to reconsider the characteristic confines of the hitman movie. Forest Whitaker’s titular assassin-for-hire presents an antithesis to the stoic and dispassionate archetype. Like many protagonists in the genre, he lives by an unbreakable code, in this case the ancient wisdom of the samurai, but his application progresses beyond the practical limits of his work and rises to a graceful spiritual clarity. Ghost Dog is chock full of various back stabbings and vengeance missions to be expected from the genre, but Jarmusch taps into the protagonist’s inner peace in order to find natural reason in even the most gruesome violence. Ghost Dog unravels beautifully with a combination of Akira Kurosawa’s jidaigeki energy, Yasujiro Ozu’s tradition-bound optimism and Seijun Suzuki’s style (even pulling a set piece straight from Branded to Kill).
What’s so refreshing and instantly lovable about Paterson is it’s dogged determination to avoid conflict for its protagonist, the titular, mild-mannered bus driver/poet (Adam Driver). During the course of a week, we see him show affection for his supportive and creative wife (Golshifteh Farahani), be open and friendly with his neighbors, do his job and write poetry in his spare time. In a nutshell, that’s about as much as one can get from Jarmusch’s meditation on the beauty of life’s monotony. Like the film’s frequent shots of calm water moving inevitably with the stream, we eventually tune into Patterson’s frequency with such hypnotic acceptance that even the hint of a plot point near the end plays out like high drama.
What makes Down By Law the quintessential Jarmusch film is in the deliberate exclusion of a sequence most other directors would have turned into their calling card. Two innocent inmates (John Lurie and Tom Waits) are joined by a third prisoner (Roberto Benigni), who is guilty but has a pretty airtight argument for self-defense. While playing cards, they discuss various exciting prison break scenes in film history, which motivates Benigni’s character to mention that he has a foolproof plan of escape. After a scene that references such cinematic moments, Jarmusch directly cuts to the prisoners already running away from prison, having cut the escape sequence all together. Jarmusch succinctly demonstrates that he isn’t interested in action but is far more fascinated by the individual quirks and mannerisms of his characters, while the dialogue that references such other prison break films expresses how deeply American mainstream pop culture has defined a big part of his personality.
No matter our cultural differences, music binds us as one. This basic but potent message is at the heart of Mystery Train, Jarmusch’s love letter to the history of American pop. Yet another anthology film, this follows three sets of guests who spend one night in a dingy Memphis hotel that resembles a slightly less hellish version of the Earle in Barton Fink. The first and most delectable story is about a young Japanese couple (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase) who end up at the hotel after touring some Elvis-related landmarks. This being Memphis, of course Elvis is a figurative, and in one hilarious occasion literal, ghost that permeates the film’s soul, yet Jarmusch never forgets to give due props to underrated and forgotten local legends, most amusingly brought out by the Japanese man’s obsession with Carl Perkins. The second story is more appropriately melancholic, as a recently widowed Italian (Nicoletta Braschi) gets stuck in Memphis and shares a room with a down-on-her-luck woman (Elizabeth Bracco). Braschi’s performance, full of quiet sorrow, dominates this segment. The third is a manic comedy of errors as an Elvis lookalike lowlife (Joe Strummer) puts his friends (Rick Aviles and Steve Buscemi) in immediate danger after he indulges in an impulsively violent act. Drawing enchantment out of Robby Muller’s lush color cinematography, saturated in passionate reds, Mystery Train is a subdued but unforgettable experience.
A superficial read of Stranger Than Paradise’s premise imagines a traditional road movie with even more traditional character arcs: Cranky New York loner Willie (John Lurie) finds himself having to host his Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) at the insistence of his elderly and traditionally Hungarian aunt Lotte (Cecilia Stark). The two don’t like each other at first, but gradually find enough common ground to motivate Willie to visit Eva in Cleveland with his naïve best friend Eddie (Richard Edson), transforming into a road trip to Florida for all three. We expect a traditional arc, for Willie and Eva to work through their personal issues via their strengthening bond, all while Eddie serves as convenient comic relief. Yet Jarmusch is only interested in the disinterest the characters have for one another, keeping track of their various insecurities and selfish reasoning, the ways they silently scream for deeper connections. Made up of sequences each comprised of single takes, Stranger Than Paradise plays out so in tune with its characters’ laziness that it can’t even bother to cut these scenes together, opting for a second of black screen in between each shot. Jarmusch found a unique cinematic language, certainly imitated but totally singular, in this comedy masterwork.