Taking a Ride With Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth”

Night on Earth Night on Earth

Jim Jarmusch’s around the world anthology is a flawed but ambitious look at the odd moments that bind us.

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.

Written in little over a week in the wake of another project falling through, 1991’s Night On Earth found Jim Jarmusch taking the basic conceit of his previous film, Mystery Train (1990), and expanding upon it both structurally and geographically—while its predecessor offered up three stories taking place in and around a Memphis motel over the course of one night, it presented five stories set during the same night and taking place in such far-flung locales as Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki.

Although it received decent enough reviews at the time of its release, even supporters of Jarmusch’s previous films were suggesting that the advent of international locations and a higher-profile cast could not hide the sense that a certain repetitiveness was setting in. Seen today, the film is not exactly one of his essential works and is probably the weakest of his films featuring a collection of vaguely linked stories, though it still offers viewers any number of pleasures. 

Although the locales are wildly different, the stories follow the same basic template exploring the odd, if necessarily temporary, relationships that can sometimes develop between cab drivers and their passengers over the course of a ride. In Los Angeles, a Hollywood executive (Gena Rowlands) becomes convinced that her driver (Winona Ryder) would be perfect for a role she is trying to cast and cannot believe that she would rather become a mechanic instead of a movie star. In New York, a bizarre cultural clash develops between an East German immigrant (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his b-boy passenger (Giancarlo Esposito), whose worries about his driver’s lack of knowledge of automatic transmissions or the local geography eventually lead to him taking over the wheel, picking up his combative sister-in-law (Rosie Perez) along the way. 

In Paris, a driver (Isaach De Bankole) from the Ivory Coast kicks two drunken African diplomats out of his car and then instead gives a ride to a blind woman (Beatrice Dalle), who fascinates him despite her rude behavior. In Rome, an ailing priest (Paolo Bonacelli) hails a cab driven by a wacko (Roberto Benigni, perhaps inevitably) who proceeds to rage him with tales of his sexual history with partners ranging from a pumpkin to a goat to his brother’s wife. In Helsinki, three men get into a cab to head home after a long night of drinking after one of them is fired from his job. While the unemployed man is passed out, his friends talk about the bleakness of his predicament when the driver (Matti Pellonpaa) chimes in to regale them with what he says is the saddest story he has ever heard.

Considering that Jarmusch’s earlier films had explored, to varying degrees, the idea of looking at America through the eyes of foreigners in order to find a new perspective on the peculiarities it has to offer, one might expect that expanding his scope into international territories might inspire similar musings but that is not the case and is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film. Although it could be argued that Jarmusch is trying to make the point that the world is pretty much the same all over when seen from the vantage point of the back of a cab, the basic stories, with the possible stops in Los Angeles and Helsinki, are not especially intrinsic to their setting and could have been located anywhere. As a result, one increasingly gets the sense that Jarmusch put these tales together not so much because he had some grand point to make as because he wanted to go to those places and make a film with his pals. The result is not necessarily a glorified home movie, but it does come close at times.

Of the stories in Night on Earth, the most satisfying is probably the one set in Jarmusch’s familiar New York stomping grounds thanks to the hilarious byplay that develops between Esposito and Mueller-Stahl that gets cranked up even further once Perez comes along for the ride. The LA story offers no particular insights of note but it is a treat to see Rowlands and Ryder playing off of each other. The Paris story meanders a bit but the chemistry that develops between De Bankole and Dalle (whose character seems to be a shoutout to her breakthrough role in Betty Blue) helps it along considerably.

Seen today, the film is not exactly one of his essential works and is probably the weakest of his films featuring a collection of vaguely linked stories, though it still offers viewers any number of pleasures. 

The Helsinki portion pays sly homage to the works of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki while serving as a reminder that there is always a sadder story out there. The weakest of the bunch is the Rome interlude—even those with the ability to tolerate Benigni’s particular brand of screen energy will quickly grow tired of his antic style as shown herein a section clearly designed to supply nothing but laughs but providing precious few of them.

Night On Earth, as suggested earlier, is not one of the great Jarmusch films but it still has several elements worthy of consideration. A number of the performances throughout are quite good, as has been pointed out. The cinematography by Frederick Elmes (the first of his several collaborations with Jarmusch) is striking throughout and the whole film is linked together by a memorable score from Tom Waits. The film’s greatest significance, however, may be the way that it brought a conclusion to the filmmaking period that began with the release of Stranger Than Paradise, and would clear the decks for him that would next lead to what continues to be the greatest and most lasting work of his career to date.

Night on Earth Trailer:

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