Broken Flowers Review

If Jim Jarmusch’s previous feature Coffee and Cigarettes was a throwback to earlier times in his career, returning to the territory of the various short films of the same name which he’d intermittently produced over the years, then Broken Flowers is perhaps more a conscious step forwards. Not in the sense that it sees him moving off into different areas, as past efforts Dead Man, Year of the Horse and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai had done with Western, documentary and gangster flick respectively, but inasmuch as it sees a quintessentially cult director flirting with the mainstream. Admittedly, this isn’t through any dramatic shift in stylistic approach – we are still dealing with something recognisably Jarmusch here – but rather through the casting of Bill Murray. His Don Johnston, Broken Flowers’ lead character, is very much in tune with the actor’s current onscreen persona as evinced in Lost in Translation and the Wes Anderson collaborations: calm, relaxed, easy, louche even, but also recognisably middle-aged. Moreover, in such a form Murray makes for a perfect Jarmusch fit even as he draws in the extra audience members.

Johnston is something of a modern day Don Juan as we’re repeatedly informed. Of course the names themselves aren’t too dissimilar, plus there’s The Private Life of Don Juan from 1934 playing on the television early on, the assertion from latest conquest Julie Delpy that he’s an “over the hill Don Juan”, and various explicit nods from neighbour Jeffrey Wright. And as with Don Juan’s everywhere, both real and imagined, there’s also the possibility of a child somewhere down the line, and so it is that Johnston receives a letter informing him of the very same situation, in this case a 19-year old son. However, with no signature or return address there’s also no chance of knowing who the mother could be. And so, with Wright’s help, a list of potential candidates is drawn up from previous relationships thereby allowing Broken Flowers to head off into road movie territory as Johnston heads off in search of the truth about his son.

The input of Wright’s character is all this is important as effectively he creates the film before us. A detective nut, he traces down each of the potential mothers and provides his neighbour with their addresses, flight departure times, car rental outlets, motel bookings and even a CD to accompany the long drives. In other words he’s plotted everything out and even provided the soundtrack; from hereon in all Jarmusch need do is provide some of his patented oddball moments as we shift from encounter to encounter with these former lovers.

Indeed, Broken Flowers is very much a prime Jarmusch offering in this respect. It’s typically lackadaisical in its approach, very loose and predicated on the smaller details, not so much the bigger picture. As said, it’s a world into which Murray fits very snugly (certainly as well as John Lurie once did, for example, or Tom Waits) and as a result everyone around him is therefore free to provide the more obvious splashes of colour. There’s Wright of course, once again demonstrating his astonishing actorly diversity (see also Angels in America, Basquiat, take your pick), and the starry assemblage of name actresses playing the former engagements, each of whom offers something a little different: Sharon Stone, Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton almost completely unrecognisable as an ageing biker chick. And certainly, Broken Flowers is episodic, made up as it is by their individual vignettes, but there’s also a great diversity. The Stone encounter, for example, introduces her daughter Lolita (well if the Don Juan references are going to be obvious…) and a piece of blatant flirting so shockingly funny you may very well forget to laugh. Meanwhile, the meeting between Murray and Conroy is so uncomfortable and so disquieting you can almost see the actor looking beyond the camera and silently pleading to Jarmusch to call a cut.

Whether wholly intentional or not, it’s these little additions from Murray which make Broken Flowers work so well. Rarely being plot-heavy, Jarmusch’s films have almost always come down to their performances and this latest venture is no different. As we progress Murray’s face becomes the emotional canvas on which these various revisits to his past make their impact. And so whilst as a road movie the film never really goes anywhere, there’s this cumulative effect which slowly draws us in to the character and finally complements us with an unexpected, but really quite raw emotional pay-off.

The Disc

As with the Region 1 offering, Momentum’s UK edition of Broken Flowers offers its film in a ratio of 1.78:1 and taken from a spotless print. The colour scheme is handled especially well – the continual contrast between pinks and pastel blues – and for the most part there are few complaints. However, the image does come across as rather grainy at times and this can prompt minor (though only intermittent) instances of artefacting. Whether the graininess is intentional, I can’t really say, though when reviewing the Region 1 edition Gary Couzens made no note of such flaws.

As for the soundtrack, here we find a DD5.1 offering which is again in mostly fine condition. The superb soundtrack of mostly Ethiopian jazz (though the Greenhornes track which accompanies both the title sequence and closing credits is equally fine) is handled especially well, as is the dialogue for the most part. Oddly, Jeffrey Wright can be a little difficult to discern at times, sounding rather muffled and indistinct, though given how this only affects his character it is perhaps safe to assume that such a difficulty was inherent in the original production. (As an aside, the disc also supplies English subtitles for the hard of hearing which may prove handy in a few of Wright’s scenes.)

The special features are fairly minor additions, yet somehow feel quite Jarmusch-ian in their conception, if you will. ‘The Girls on the Bus’ is made up of outtakes from the scene in which Murray hears two exciteable teenage girls on a bus. ‘Start to Finish’ collates various clapper shots compiled during the film’s shooting and interpolates them with some gag reel footage. And ‘Farmhouse’ artfully takes us behind the scenes of the Tilda Swinton episode with various 16mm film stocks and a mumbly radio interview in which the director talks about his experiences making the film. (In all three cases, there are no optional subtitles available, English or otherwise.)

8 out of 10
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