More noise than signal

Broken Flowers

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

Course, much of Broken Flowers is us staring at Bill Murray staring at something, usually the middle distance. This would not seem to be the most entertaining thing on a casual observation, and quite why it isn’t exceedingly dull is something I’m struggling to come to terms with. Surely we can’t just point at Bill Murray and say he’s just exceedingly watchable, displaying such subtle nuances through mere facial twitched that we seem to know far more about his character than the sparse dialogue and exposition would back up with anything concrete? Were I feeling lazy I’d say “yes” and move on to something easier, but I’m in a motivated sort of mood today.

There’s something wrong with Don Johnston (Bill Murray), although it’s possible he’s not aware of it. He watches his girlfriend leave him with the same dispassionate nonchalance displayed while slumped on a sofa, watching telly. Having made his money in the computer industry then bailing out early, he’s using the luxury of free time to do, well, precious little. Momentum seems to shift when a mysterious pink letter arrives, proclaiming that some twenty years ago, after splitting up with the mystery girl she discovered she was pregnant with Johnston’s child. Raising his son by herself with the kid never knowing who his pappy was, this seemed to go swimmingly. Until now.

With the kid missing on a road trip the mystery mother believes has the ultimate goal of finding him, this letter was sent as a warning. While Don’s tempted to file this under either ‘nutjob’ or ‘wind-up’, his neighbour Winston (Jeffery Wright) is keen to transfer his love of detective fiction into solving a real-life mystery. Far more eager than Don appears to be, on the surface at least. After haranguing Don into making a list of all possible child delivery vectors within the appropriate window of opportunity, Don’s sent off round the country with a lovingly prepared itinerary taking him on a trip to the ghosts of his past.

It’s quite interesting just how much of Don’s character can be inferred from his attitude, his reactions and those of the women he visits. There’s an unstated hurt in Dora Anderson (Frances Conroy)’s politely guarded reception that’s almost heartbreaking, leading to perhaps the most socially awkward dinner party ever committed to celluloid when her hubby Ron (Christopher McDonald) appears. The hurt is rather more vocal in Penny (Tilda Swinton)’s case, and Carmen Markowski seems as nonplussed by his sudden reappearance and probing questions as Don is of her trade, Animal communicator? Do one.

Whole relationships are inferred in an absence of information, from such a minimal vocal cue. It’s all told in attitude, in body language, in awkward glances. This is the sort of thing that the truly dire 9 Songs was trying to do, hampered by a lack of talent and competence. Every single member of the cast, all the way down to Winston’s kids play absolute blinders. The female cast members need to pull the difficult double duty of exposition and antagonist with very few words to play with. While they all excel, there’s the one obvious stand-out performance.

I mean, Bill Murray, There’s something almost godlike about a man who can make eating carrots funny. You could say it’s just a repeat of the hangdog expressions and silences that worked so well in Lost in Translation, but the fact they worked so well in Lost in Translation is why it’s being repeated. It’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on behind the emotionless mask Don Johnston wears. Even when he may be about to shed a tear, the closest we’ve seen to a clearly defined feeling all film it may be nothing more than an eye watering following the hearty smacking it takes just prior. Enigmatic isn’t quite the right term, but we never find out quite enough about Don Johnston to get a firm handle on him or here he’s going to end up. This intangible, uncertainty keeps Johnston intriguing all the way up the credits and for, oooh, a good week or so afterwards. All this because, frankly, Bill Murray is God and we do not deserve him.

The Lost in Translation comparison is the obvious one to make, but in terms of structure and content Broken Flowers is closer to About Schmidt. These, as you might infer, are not bad shoulders to be rubbing against. Given the sparsity of Broken Flowers it can’t achieve the same emotional connection as it’s compadres, but it’s not that far behind. There’s something in the way Jarmusch presents Johnston’s life to us that invites reflection and comparison, even if we’ve nowt obviously in common with the fella. Johnston’s demons, or aspects of them, could haunt any of us should we let them making Broken Flowers something of a cautionary tale, certainly for men of ‘a certain age’.

I’ve never actually had a lot of time for Jim Jarmusch’s work prior to this, largely on the strength on Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai which I wouldn’t have rated very highly were I rating things at that time. I suspect that was a case of mis-marketing more than anything else, but it was enough to ward me away from his output. This however, is splendidly done, even if there doesn’t seem to be very much being done. There’s skill involved in seeing just how long a gaze should be returned, or a shot held, or a pause maintained. Jarmusch gives us a masterclass in tension and characterisation without really saying or doing very much, and that’s rather remarkable indeed,

The only flaw in proceedings is also the strength of the flick, and that’s Don Johnston. As a character it’s possible to feel some empathy for him, but never to quite the heartrending levels that About Schmidt achieved, admittedly through more obvious external strife than in Johnston’s case. So it’s not perfect then, but damnit it’s almost is. In a year characterised largely by absolute cinematic dross, this is a glimmer of hope for jaded hacks. If you can, you really ought to see this film.

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