From Wilted to Wistful in “Broken Flowers”

Broken Flowers Bill Murray in Broken Flowers. (Focus Features)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For January we’re celebrating the work of godfather of independent film Jim Jarmusch. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Jim Jarmusch has rarely used conventional cinematic tactics. Since he became the hero of arthouse directors everywhere with his breakthrough, Stranger Than Paradise, he’s fashioned intimate, minimalist deadpan works that have befuddled even his most ardent fans. Nevertheless, 2005’s Broken Flowers signified a change of pace as a relatively accessible film that leans heavily on character study and neo-noir principles through its star, Bill Murray

Split into several vignettes, Broken Flowers begins with a pink letter deposited in a mailbox. The character study’s opening montage tracks the letter’s trip to Don Johnston’s (Murray) front door. Jarmusch uses the letter to demonstrate life’s serendipity, the roads we travel to arrive at the point we are right now. Afterward, a despondent Don sits on his couch as his now ex-girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) moves out from their home. A lifelong bachelor, he made a small fortune in the computer industry but is now alone.

However, in the newly-arrived letter, he discovers that he and one of his old flames have a long-lost son. The boy is now 19 and searching for his father and, due to this revelation, Don comes to question his relative transience. Without a return address on the envelope, his sluethy neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright, with an endearing Ethiopian accent) investigates its origins. He constructs a list of five women who could have sent the letter and implores him to travel across the country to investigate them. Over the course of 106 minutes, Jarmusch composes vignettes for each woman Don visits in his quest to find the mother of his son.

Jarmusch is perceptibly aware of Don’s scumminess. He examines the male gaze through Don’s dream sequences, showing the ways the bachelor sees women only for their bodies: their legs and cleavages. Tellingly, Don’s interactions with his past flames become more flammable with each encounter. Laura (Sharon Stone) is welcoming; Dora (Frances Conroy) borders on being a Stepford wife; Carmen (Jessica Lange) is icy, while Penny (Tilda Swinton) flat out despises him. For the most part, they’re all eccentric and tap into Jarmusch’s dry humor, but they’ve all in some way been damaged by Don—by a life not lived. 

Even with their short screen time, Jarmusch artfully develops each woman into a complete person. Laura is a widow with a promiscuous daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena)—and probably an alcoholic. Dora, once a flower child, now represses her emotions in the face of a controlling, toxic husband. Carmen wanted to be a lawyer but talks to animals instead, and Penny is visibly shaken when asked about her son. Each demonstrates the traumas an unemotional male gaze brings into a relationship, which toxically alters each partner’s self-esteem and psychology. In very few of these vignettes does Don express any regret.  

For Murray, Don is an extension of the actor’s lead dramatic phase that included The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost in Translation, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in the early aughts. Like his character in Lost in Translation, Don is a loner. To inhabit the character, Murray employs understated physical acting; meanwhile, Jarmusch keenly articulates the same through Mark Friedberg’s production design. Dimly lit and sparse, Don’s living room has a leather couch and chair. Don sits in the middle of the couch, stiffly postured with his hands on his legs. As for the chair? It’s dusty—intimating his lack of company past Sherry and Winston. 

For the most part, they’re all eccentric and tap into Jarmusch’s dry humor, but they’ve all in some way been damaged by Don—by a life not lived. 

Murray continues Jarmusch’s affinity toward deadpan humor. With mostly a glum face, Don floats through interactions. He rarely makes eye contact when speaking, especially on a subject he finds disinteresting. However, as he continues on his journey, the range of facial expressions Murray displays widens: from disbelief, to sarcasm, and longing.

Nevertheless, what’s most thrilling about Jarmusch’s filmmaking is his ability to mix genres, and while Broken Flowers is a character study, it doubles as a neo-noir. Winston not only acts as a sleuth, hunting down the four likeliest possibilities but on multiple occasions, Don refers to himself as a Sherlock Holmes or a Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon). And yet, it’s the CD Winston gives Don to play during his travels that ties these references together. Composed of Ethiopian Jazz, it provides the soundtrack to several travel montages, giving the spaces between the vignettes a ruminative characteristic.

The theme of introspection furthers Don’s unconscious desire for a family while giving the film a universality. Because who doesn’t arrive in the autumn of their life and wonder what had happened to their past loves, the roads not taken, and the future of what we leave behind? Don wants those answers, much as he may not want to admit. The sum total of which makes Broken Flowers Jarmusch’s most approachable film this side of Paterson.

Broken Flowers Trailer:

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