OVER THE COURSE OF HIS FOUR-DECADE-SPANNING CAREER, JARMUSCH HAS CARVED OUT A CINEMATIC NICHE OF HIS OWN: DEFINED BY MINIMALIST NARRATIVE DEVICES, DEADPAN HUMOUR, FLAWLESS SOUNDTRACKS, ICONIC LONER PROTAGONISTS AND EXISTENTIAL MUSING. IT’S STRANGE THAT JARMUSCH, SO FREQUENTLY REFERRED TO AS AN INDIE PIONEER, AS A VISUAL STYLIST AND NARRATIVE EXPERIMENTALIST, IS RARELY GIVEN ENOUGH PROPS FOR BEING SOMETHING ARGUABLY MUCH RARER AND MORE PRECIOUS: AN ACTOR’S DIRECTOR. JARMUSCH HAS AN UNCANNY KNACK FOR CHOOSING ACTORS ATTUNED TO HIS OWN SENSIBILITIES, THEREAFTER UNLOCKING EXTRA LEVELS IN THEIR CHARACTERS AS A RESULT. HERE WE CONSIDER FIVE OF THE MOST ICONIC CHARACTERS OF THE AMERICAN FILMMAKER.
John Lurie as Willie in “Stranger Than Paradise”
The feature that broke Jarmusch out into the world, and certainly contributed to the definition of Independent American Cinema if it didn’t solely define it, Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” was only his second full-length film, but remains a touchstone today, especially for purists who regard it as the least compromised sampler of his particular vision. We do have a very soft spot in our hearts for this seminal indie movie, of which the undeniable lynchpin is the central performance by John Lurie. Here the rangy, impassive actor really has to carry to the loose-limbed, glamorous anti-glamor of Jarmusch’s nascent style, and he does so in oddly touching style. Willie is a slacker and an idler and has nothing much of anything going on, but he’s a strangely relatable one, and while his friendships with his visiting cousin (Eszter Balint) and equally shiftless companion Eddie (Richard Edson) may be grudging and largely unremarked upon, he manages to sell us on their depth. Perhaps that’s the greatest trick of this performance, managing to convey depth in a character whose defining trait might be shallowness, and doing so with such undeniable cool that it makes his desire to live large with minimal effort, all the while buffeted along by the winds of chance and happenstance and his own indifference, seem somehow noble.
Tom Waits as Zack in “Down By Law”
Jarmusch has specialized in bringing fringe characters in from the margins and placing them front and center, and so in “Down by Law” we get the main-course helping of Waits that we’ve always craved, in a role that feels like it was written not just for him, but from him. The chemistry between the central trio of John Lurie, Roberto Benigni and Waits is a joy but Waits’ character, Zack, the paradoxically un-chatty radio DJ, is arguably the most nuanced of the three, with Waits’ aura of broken Americana optimism, so familiar to fans of his early music, perfectly jibing with Jarmusch’s beat-noir ethos. Now, the friendship that grudgingly builds between the three men, particularly Zack and Jack, feels almost redemptive and is the most moving part of the film, so it’s difficult to discuss this performance in isolation, yet there is still a particular melancholy that Waits projects even when he’s not saying anything, or interacting at all. It’s hard to know how much he’s acting, and how much Jarmusch shifted the orbit of the film around his persona, but however it happened, the result is totally synchronous.
Johnny Depp as William Blake in “Dead Man”
“You William Blake?” “Yes I am. Do you know my poetry?” With these words, Johnny Depp’s Blake, embraces, for once, the coincidence of his name (Jarmusch does love his nomenclature gags), as well as his destiny to become a legendary killer of white men, promptly shooting his pursuers dead.
Blake, a city boy unfamiliar with the rough code of the frontier wilderness journeys for miles, but Depp’s soulfulness never lets us forget that it’s his inner journey that is the greater odyssey culminating in nothing less than an acceptance of his own death, and an acknowledgement of the fundamental absurdity of all the living that’s gone before it.
Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog in “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”
Forest Whitaker’s performance is unusual in the Jarmusch canon for being so absolutely without irony, despite the fact he’s playing perhaps the most outrageously off-the-wall of the director’s characters: a misfit loner obsessed by the Japanese Samurai tradition who repays a debt to the mob by becoming their hitman, only communicates via carrier pigeon, and has no friends besides a little girl and a Haitian ice cream man who speaks no English. No matter how batshit the details are around him, Ghost Dog himself remains a soulful, touching figure. He’s a sad, isolated man who has taken refuge in a code that no one else understands, and that provides no comfort or redemption for the terrible things he does in its name. There is a perfectly valid reading of the film that suggests that Ghost Dog is simply flat-out insane, but Whitaker manages to preserve all possible ambiguities for the character by playing him with absolute conviction and sincerity, never winking at the audience, and never suggesting that the character himself is anything but totally self-serious.
Bill Murray as Don Johnston in “Broken Flowers”
“Well, the past is gone, I know that. The future isn’t here yet, whatever it’s going to be. So, all there is, is this. The present. That’s it” remarks “ex-Don Juan” Don Johnston (Bill Murray) in an unusually garrulous moment in “Broken Flowers”. But while it might seem like that would spur most men to intense activity, Johnston has been living a life of near-paralysis, weighted down in an eternal present tense of sitting on the sofa doing nothing, until spurred by a voice from the past to reluctant action. And even that action feels passive, as Johnston journeys from one ex-lover to the next, along a route planned by someone else, like a pinball moving only because it would require more effort to stop. Here Murray, ever the most underplaying, stonefaced of comedians, meets Jim Jarmusch, ever the most deadpan of directors and the results are terrific! This performance was so defining for Murray that for a moment he thought he might not act again: “When it was done, I thought ‘this movie is so good… I should stop!’. I didn’t think I could do any better than Broken Flowers, it’s a film that is completely realized, and beautiful, and I thought I had done all I could do to it as an actor”.