There's a certain feeling of anti-climax when Broken Flowers ends. One on hand you have this new film from one of indiedom's most revered names (Jim Jarmusch) with one of the greatest actors of all time (Bill Murray) occupying nearly every frame. On the other, though, the final product isn't as satisfying as Murray's other recent work (The Life Aquatic, Lost in Translation, and Rushmore chief among them) in that you don't feel like you've feasted on this man's talents for the past couple hours.
But perhaps calling Broken Flowers Murray's movie might be where that feeling comes from. This is a Jarmusch movie, not a Murray movie. Yes Murray is in it and is amazing, as always, but Jarmusch is such a formidable storyteller that his movies are his. Ghost Dog isn't Forrest Whitaker's movie, nor is Dead Man Johnny Depp's movie.
Actually, once you set aside that discrepancy, there is very little to gripe about in Broken Flowers, a film centered on Don Johnston (Murray), an aging Casanova who receives an anonymous pink letter in which the author tells him, 20 years ago, she has birthed a son, his son, and he should probably know about it. This comes hot on the heels of his latest girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), walking out of his life.
Don's amateur detective next-door neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), sees a chance to engage in a little mystery solving and convinces Don -- after considerable arm twisting -- to embark on a quest where he'll seek out four women who are good candidates for the role of "mother of Don's child" and try to find out which one, if any of them, sent the letter. Winston even goes so far as to Mapquest Don's trip and book hotels, airlines and rental cars for him.
The one-man road trip Don embarks on takes him to meet Laura (Sharon Stone), Dora (Frances Conroy), Carmen (Jessica Lange) and Penny (Tilda Swinton). As Don visits each one, we see -- and he realizes -- that each one's situation gets progressively worse, causing him to wonder if his womanizing ways caused these hellacious existences for these women to exist.
What's interesting about the trip itself is how short-lived it ultimately is; there's never more than ten minutes spent on any one woman. This is a credit to Jarmusch and his storytelling. Don never wanted to take this trip, he was instead coaxed into going by Winston. So it's only reasonable to expect that Don wouldn't want to spend a great deal of time with these people -- he doesn't care which one is the mother; in fact he doesn't care if he even has a son (at least at first) -- so we don't spend a lot of time with these people, either.
But perhaps more noteworthy, as far as Jarmusch's storytelling and Murray's acting is concerned, is how at the beginning and end of the trip, Don has no interest. When he goes to meet Laura, he looks uncomfortable in his own skin just being on Laura's doorstep; when he sees Penny, he doesn't even beat around the bush, he asks her straight out if she had a son. In the middle of the trip, though, when Don reconnects with Dora and Carmen, he's actually somewhat interested, despite the strangeness of the situations: Dora is one of those automaton pre-fab real estate agents and Carmen is an "animal communicator."
By having this sort of cyclicality imbued in Don's trip, Jarmusch allows the character to grow and evolve in a wholly natural way. At the end of his trip, Don isn't really any better off than he was before it -- actually, he's worse: Penny's husband gives him quite the shiner. But he is more aware. Don notices and observes now, whereas before he just existed, a creature of his environment. There's no trite Hollywood sentimentality here, and that's a credit to Jarmusch's style.
Similarly, Murray brings his usual, nuanced performance to the film. His Don is more akin to his Herman Blume in Rushmore rather than, say, his Steve Zissou or Bob Harris. And in a way that can get frustrating. You want to see this wise-cracking, frustrated person but instead all you get is the frustration. But boy, does Murray understand and convey that frustration better than anyone other actor alive today. Murray's performance is, as always, spectacular, but he's best when he's improvising, like when he acts opposite Winston's kids. There, you can tell he's straying from the script a bit and that is always when Murray works best. Of course, that's assuming Jarmusch didn't let him improvise at all, or at least very little, and who can say other than Jarmusch and Murray.
What you can assume, though, is that Murray was working as close to Jarmusch's vision as possible. It creates a brilliant film that plays with genre convention while commenting on the state of the nation. One scene that is particularly resonant is one where Don is sleeping in his car, after seeing Penny, which is parked on a baron field that used to be filled with corn. During the scene, there is a shot of an undergrown ear of corn stuck under the wheels of Don's Ford Taurus and exhaust is pumping out the tail pipe. The quick imagery there of the destruction of modernity is explicit, powerful and wouldn't have been out of place in The Grapes of Wrath.
Broken Flowers is a film that ages very well in the memory thanks to the brilliance of everyone involved, especially the strong supporting cast. You probably won't find a better, more important secondary role than the one Jeffrey Wright plays here. His performance is so excellent that if he isn't recognized come awards season there should be an investigation. Similarly, all of the woman are wonderful in their brief-yet-important roles. But this is Murray's show -- at least on the acting side -- and this is the most restrained and introverted he's ever been.
When you put it all together, you get one of Murray's best performances, Jarmusch's most complete work, and a film that was not only wholly desrving of his Grand Prix award at Cannes but also one of the best films of the year.