Every Jim Jarmusch film reviewed

jim jarmuschReviewed: Permanent Vacation (1980), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Broken Flowers (2005), The Limits of Control (pictured above, 2009) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).

Jim Jarmusch was born in 1959, but his hair went grey in 1974. His early life sounds like a grey area – he dropped out of film school to produce the disappointing Permanent Vacation. That all changed when Stranger Than Paradise became a surprise critical hit. He has since become a cult figure; his distinct style comes from insisting on complete control, even when Harvey Weinstein complained that Dead Man wasn’t commercial enough. He also played himself in the underrated sitcom Bored to Death. I loved that show.

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Permanent Vacation
(1980) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Chris Parker
“But what’s a story anyway, except one of those connect the dots drawings?”

permanent vacationA permanent vacation doesn’t really work. You’d eventually need a vacation from the vacation. That’s the crux of Jarmusch’s first grainy film. A young hipster walks around New York and feels disconnected; a tourist in his home town. With this feeling of alienation, he’s compelled to board a boat to France.

Abstract homelessness is a theme Jarmusch would repeatedly explore in his career, but is still undeveloped. You can tell Permanent Vacation is a university project: low-budget, amateur and the shots are presumably improvised. What saves the mediocrity is the mysterious blandness of New York – empty and lifeless, wherever the camera wanders.

Elsewhere, the sparse plotting and lack of dialogue are unappealing, leaving your eyes to request a permanent vacation. Perhaps there’s poignancy in the empty streets. I just couldn’t find it.

Stranger Than Paradise
(1984) – 8.5/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson
“He’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and he’s a wild man, so bug off.”

stranger than paradiseJarmusch’s low-budget breakthrough captures a deadbeat swing that glorifies in awkward silences. Oozing in ‘coolness’, Eva (Eszter Balint) is introduced by an uninterrupted establishing shot of her walking through New York to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. She’s there to visit her cousin Willie (John Lurie) and they sit in his flat bored out of their minds; she smokes, he plays solitaire and loses.

The film uses patient, black-and-white cinematography that soaks in blank spaces while its characters mainly speak in humorously deadpan complaints. When Willie’s friend Willie (Richard Edson) visits, they still find little to talk about, yet they seemed determined to have fun. Except fun for them is taking a road trip to Florida to stay in a downgraded motel. When there’s a concern that the monotonous pacing might overstay its welcome, an amusing subplot about gambling enters the plot.

What’s particularly astounding is how Jarmusch finds hidden beauty in empty rooms. His characters exchange mundane small talk like strangers, tired of their surroundings. The actors don’t exaggerate their lines, with their natural performances probably coming from not being experienced actors. Edson, for instance, was the drummer on Sonic Youth’s underrated debut album. The camera uses this to find plaintive comedy in the conversation gaps, and artistic merit in the blank walls. It should perhaps be called Strangers in Paradise. (Or not, seeing as it’s about immigrants learning America’s just as grey as everywhere else.)

Down by Law
(1986) – 7/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni
“We are a good egg.”

down by lawThe sad, pensive characters of Jarmusch’s films tend to be trapped in their own worlds, with physical journeys having more of an internal impact – in Down by Law, a shift is made when three men are imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. When they escape, their hideout looks identical to a prison cell. It’s an atypically Jarmuschian (is that a word?) image that encapsulates the dry comedy of existential anguish.

There is a subversion of a typical jailbreak film as their getaway isn’t explained or even shown – Roberto Benigni promises he has a plan, and in the next scene the trio are fleeing the sound of a prison siren. The weirder aspects make it worth watching: Tom Waits as a radio DJ who won’t  talk, the absence of other people in the outside world, and Benigni’s juxtaposed optimisim. Yes, the world is so bleak that it’s possible to derive humour from someone who is genuinely cheerful at the face of adversity. Not a bad character defect to have, I reckon.

Mystery Train
(1989) – 6/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Nicoletta Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi
“I’m very happy. That’s just the way my face is.” “What? You mean after all this shit, you ain’t even my fucking brother-in-law?”

mystery trainJarmusch pervades narrative for a lingering feeling, often best expressed through a song broadcasted on the radio. The ghostly haunts of Mystery Train mixes three stories, each with the expected wry humour, and a plethora of memorable shots that fit the running-away-from-home vibe: wide shots of walking with a suitcase; bored hotel workers talking fondly about the sincere sweetness of an outsider’s fruit. The Joe Strummer section’s a drag, though.

Night on Earth
(1991) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch Starring: Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Roberto Benigni, Matti Pellonpää “Try driving school, you fucking nimrod!”

night on earthThe best way to watch Night on Earth is at night and in a car. By this point, Jim Jarmusch had already made Strangers in Paradise and Down By Law – two travel films that about the journey, rather than geography. He takes that aesthetic to its extreme: five droll segments set entirely in taxi cabs.

Over two hours, the dialogue between a driver and passengers can wear you down; the fragmented structure means characters never fully develop. It’s kept watchable by a cast with minor affectations, whether it’s Winona Ryder chewing gum while behind the wheel, or Roberto Benigni’s voice accelerating the more he hits the pedal.

The individual stories find humour in juxtaposition; an eccentric passenger with a deadpan driver (apart from Benigni’s segment). It occasionally lurches into something more substantial – Ryder turns down an offer to be “in the movies” and a Swedish driver tells the story of his dead child. By then, it’s time for the next story or the credits. And, for being set in America and across Europe, everyone speaks in the same Jarmuschian tone – just occasionally with subtitles.

Dead Man
(1995) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer
“Are you sure you have no tobacco?”

dead manThe mystique of 19th century America is explored by Depp as William Blake – he is unsure if he is the reincarnation of the Romantic poet. I guess if you’re born with that name, you get confused when you Google yourself.

Dead Man is ostensibly a mood piece, shot in black-and-white with a crawling soundtrack: Neil Young plays improvised guitar lines, matching the film’s willingness to pause for reflection. It’s trippy and full of poetic images that are unforgettable in the moment (but escape you when it’s time to write the review).

The deadpan (sounds like the title) nature of Jarmusch’s take on a Western is particularly idiosyncratic; shootouts are simply a formality with male bravado, while there are surreal touches when Depp wonders if he’s already dead. It manages to be both anachronistic, fantastical, yet staying true to the genre.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
(1999) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Isaach De Bankolé
“Hold on – did you say he only contacts you through a fucking bird?”

ghost day the way of the samuraiThe one shot that particularly sticks out is a carrier pigeon flying meditatively to the sounds of RZA’s hip hop soundtrack. The beats of the Wu-Tang Clan hang over a strange drama that’s occasionally hilarious, but often wanders aimlessly.

In the lead, Forest Whitaker plays an assassin who readily quotes from Hagakure, an ancient code of the samurai. (It’s basically a self-help book, except it’s considered offensive to criticise the readers.) He also teaches a young child about literature; these scenes feel like an attempt to qualify the film as something it isn’t. For the rest of the time, you have a droll assassin coolly finding his victims before they find him.

Jarmusch spoke about how he used a hip hop approach to editing Ghost Dog; like many hip hop albums, you may prefer certain tracks, rather than listening from start to finish.

UPDATE: Forget what I said. Really works on second viewing.

Coffee and Cigarettes
(2003) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, so many people
“Is that Bill Murray?”

coffee and cigarettesThis collection of 11 short films bears obvious connections (coffee, cigarettes, all black-and-white). I’m usually not a fan of these structures, as the lesser segments feel pointless, while the other parts end too soon. And, well, it’s a mixed bag.

One longstanding connection is a mantra of fame, which might be down to the film’s construction of picking A-listers on their days off. Subsequently, my favourites feature actors playing versions of themselves, meaning they challenge Jarmusch’s language without veering too far. For instance, Steve Coogan is in the same mode he would develop further with The Trip and A Cock and Bull Story, and Blanchett’s double act emphasised the surreal dichotomy of life’s meaninglessness. Or something.

Broken Flowers
(2005) – 9.5/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton
“The future isn’t here yet.”

broken flowersWhen Bill Murray swapped comedy for pathos, he was widely applauded – Oscar-nominated for singing karaoke with ScarJo in Lost in Translation, and his role in Rushmore helped build the critical wave that swept the Wes Anderson tide. He deserved the praise, but Broken Flowers is where he truly shines as the weary focus of every scene.

When Murray receives a letter from someone purporting to be his son, his pushy neighbour forces him to find his ex-girlfriends and do some detective work. The storyline isn’t an ideal trajectory (especially as it was done in High Fidelity), but Jarmusch adds unexpected mystery and comedy along the way. Not only does the film solely follow Murray, but it patiently draws the life out of his facial expressions; his wilder days are over, and tracing his steps brings an uneasy clarity over his loneliness.

The past figures from his life have all changed, but represent the different sides of his character that have eroded; they see him as a stranger and can barely pronounce his name without an awkward laugh. Jarmusch teases out the smaller details in his descent; he sleeps on the living room’s sofa instead of in the bedroom, and is content watching television in an empty house. The dry comedy comes from watching him play a reluctant detective – he doesn’t search for his son because of personal reasons, but to stop his neighbour from hassling him.

The added mystery is in how Jarmusch doesn’t explain back stories; several relationships are introduced by the pitch of a “hello” and whether there’s a “goodbye”. It isn’t until a dreamed montage of images and a heartbreaking final scene when you realise how powerful the drama is within the muted responses.

Jarmusch’s films best known films follow deeply rooted men who are physically displaced – Broken Flowers continues the tradition, but is the pinnacle of a character finding self-discovery. The journey isn’t about finding clues, but one of car journeys without dialogue, vacant recollections of old faces, and staring into the abyss.

The Limits of Control
(2009) – 5.5/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Isaach De Bankolé, Paz de la Huerta, Bill Murray
“The best films are like dreams you’re not sure you really had.”

the limits of controlHave you ever been hypnotised, then as it gradually wore off, realised you couldn’t move away for two hours? That’s not too dissimilar from the viewing experience provided by The Limits of Control. Its patience borders on hostile; when little happens, you can even tell when the suspense is going to be a red herring.

When the repetition begins, you have to laugh. No names are revealed, and only one character appears on screen for more than ten minutes; the protagonist barely speaks, even when spoken to. It makes you wonder how Night on Earth would have fared without any passengers.

Isaach De Bancholé plays a very silent assassin. He meets various strangers who share the same exchanges – he or she asks if he speaks Spanish before explaining their hobbies via a monologue, before swapping matchboxes. These meetings are preceded by Bancholé orderering two espressos in two cups. After 30 minutes, I guessed Jarmusch is being playful, and it’s confirmed when Tilda Swinton declares that the best films are dreams holding foundations in reality.

By showing off its artifice, you notice more in Jarmusch’s experiment. For instance, every time Bancholé stares at an abstract painting, you’re aware of your own position. If the rhythmic mathematics isn’t enough, music loops appear as reminders; I counted “Farewell” by Boris three times. The main reference is Ghost Dog, another portrait of a hitman – this is more precise, always moving in one direction.

It becomes mesmerising because of the gorgeous cinematography – it would need to be. That is what, for better or worse, makes The Limits of Control stand out in Jarmusch’s filmography – the genius behind droll dialogue tries to survive without his instruments. When the climax doesn’t pay off, you’re aware that many aspects are arbitrary. I could enjoy it for an hour, but it became too much. Instead of marvelling the cinematography, I wondered if I was actually just responding to Spanish architecture.

Only Lovers Left Alive
(2013) – 4.5/10

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin
“I was born at night. I wasn’t born last night.”

RZ6A1729.JPGOnly Lovers Left Alive was one of my most anticipated films: a vampire comedy with Hiddleston and Swinton as ageless lovers swept away in modern subcultures. Sadly, very little of the dry humour clicked and, while the soundtrack suitably rocked, Jarmusch’s sharp wit is noticeably absent.

Jarmusch’s films typically find funny juxtapositions through outsiders ruining settled rhythms. However, the two protagonists share similar personalities that run into severe repetition and diminishing returns. The vampires, named Adam (Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton), have lasted for generations, only to be confounded by society’s infiltration of zombies (a nickname for humans) and rockers. After a brief break of 87 years (they do have a lot of time to kill), Eve leaves the spirituality of Tangier to rejoin Adam’s gothic den in Detroit.

Their conversations might appeal to newcomers unfamiliar with Jarmusch’s language, but the drop in quality is evident by a running joke of “bloody” as an adjective. Elsewhere, the pair riff aimlessly on science and the burden of technology, as if the viewer also shares the luxury of infinite time.

Eve’s fascination with diamonds forming in space recalls “Lucy in the Sky of Diamonds”; The Beatles pay further influence with the tripped out reactions to drinking blood. That psychedelic pleasure is at odds with the duo’s moody exhaustion with life – or, at least, Adam’s stubbornness. The film certainly picks up when Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) briefly appears as a bouncy intruder – as I mentioned earlier, Jarmusch works best when juxtaposing outsider personalities. Eva also possesses the best line: “I was born at night. I wasn’t born last night.” However, she’s gone after 10 minutes, and it’s back to eternity.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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