Jim Jarmusch is a director who has helped to define the modern independent film. His films are always interesting, often brilliant and possess a unique combination of minimalism, deadpan humor and keen observation about the human condition.
What follows are brief descriptions of some of Jarmusch’s better-known films. While I have seen all of these, some I’ve only seen once and quite a while ago, which will explain the extreme brevity of some of them. More information is available on the links.
Stranger Than Paradise is often cited as a breakthrough film, even the first indie film. However you define it, Stranger Than Paradise is a brilliant and hilarious look at the aimless lives of two drifters. This movie is practically a crash course in existentialism. Well, at least as I see it; I’m sure some scholars of Sartre or Heidegger would disagree, but it’s still a movie worth seeing, or seeing again.
Down By Law is almost a sequel to Stranger Than Paradise, coming a couple of years later and having a similar style. This one is about three convicts who escape from prison, but like its predecessor, it’s really about the absurdity of life and relationships. I enjoyed this one, but not quite as much as Stranger, because it seemed to be coasting a little on that film’s style and energy.
Mystery Train is a film where Jarmusch takes off in a new direction, using some of the techniques that became popular quite a bit later with directors like Quentin Tarantino, such as combining storylines of different characters and jumping around in time. Mystery Train looks at several people in a Memphis hotel, many of them obsessed with Elvis.
Night On Earth again contains several sets of characters, this time in different cities around the world. The common denominator is that all of the action takes place during taxi rides. Some great scenes of nighttime city life.
Ghost Dog is one of my favorite Jarmusch films. Here he once again breaks new ground and explores the intersecting (at least in this film) underworlds of the mafia and samurai warriors. Forest Whitaker is great as a modern-day samurai who wanders city streets enforcing an ancient code of honor. This is another film with unique idiosyncrasies that add to the enjoyment, such as the Whitaker character’s fondness and skill with carrier pigeons. One of the themes of Ghost Dog is the question of whether it is possible to hold on to a meaningful set of values in the wasteland of modern culture.
Dead Man stars Johnny Depp in Jarmusch’s foray into the Western genre.
Broken Flowers stars Bill Murray, who might seem an unusual actor to appear in a Jim Jarmusch film, but he is a versatile actor who does well in everything from mainstream comedies to offbeat indies like this. Here he is on a road trip where he meets various women he’s been involved with over the years.
Coffee and Cigarettes is yet another very different kind of film. It is almost entirely dialogue centered, and yet it remains fascinating and, to its credit, never feels like you are watching a stage play. There are a series of encounters between people, who literally do smoke and drink coffee, all in black and white.
There is a wide diversity of talent here, including Jarmusch favorites Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni, as well as Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, comedian Steven Wright, and Alfred Molina. What I love about this film is similar to what I admired so much in his earlier Stranger Than Paradise -the ability to convey so much with so little. The conversations in Coffee and Cigarettes all hinge on mostly subtle points, differences of opinion, concealed resentments and the like.
Whereas the average mainstream movie hits the viewer over the head with huge concepts and then usually disappoints when it comes to delivering anything meaningful, Jarmusch takes acorn-sized ideas and allows the viewer to watch them grow.
Of course, not everyone has the patience for this. People weaned on special effects, comic book characters, car chases and explosions will find a film like Coffee and Cigarettes boring and difficult to sit through. For Jarmusch fans, however, this is one of his trademark efforts.