Overlooked Movie Monday: Broken Flowers

by Eric Melin on August 22, 2011

in Blogs

Sometimes less truly is more, even when it flies under the radar. Such is the case with today’s excellent Overlooked Movie — one that is crying out for a deluxe Blu-ray reissue and a critical re-evaluation.

Bill Murray has virtually cornered the market on understated acting, while writer/director Jim Jarmusch (“Dead Man,” “Down by Law”) has always specialized in quirky, meditative portraits. The combination of the two in 2005 brought us “Broken Flowers,” a compelling portrait of loneliness that got decent if not overenthusiastic reviews, but doesn’t get talked about much anymore.

Maybe it was too subtle, or maybe the revelation about the character seemingly too minor, but “Broken Flowers” ranks up there as one of Jarmusch’s best works, and is easily my favorite of  his because of a deep connection I felt with it immediately.

Jarmusch’s specializes in mysterious loners, and this one bears the unfortunate name of Don Johnston – which must be repeated every time Murray introduces himself, stressing the “t.” It’s an uncomfortable laugh that never gets old because it is never played as a joke. Other peoples’ reactions are painfully frank, and Murray’s thinly veiled, fake patience is just one of the many subtleties that make his performance a real pleasure.

Don is a stoic, yet clearly broken, man. A recent retiree who has made a nice living for himself “in computers” but doesn’t even have one in his house, he is suffering from unspecified existential angst. We never learn exactly how he made his fortune. In fact, the film is not much for minor details, which is part of its appeal, preferring to allow viewers to see ourselves more easily in many of the all-too-real characters.

Broken-Flowers-wright-murrayAfter the devoutly unattached Don Juan receives an unsigned letter from one of his old flames, his inquisitive neighbor Winston (a superb Jeffrey Wright), who lives several tax brackets below him, takes the initiative to book flights, rental cars, and hotels for his unlikely friend. If the note is true, then Don has a 19-year old son who may be coming to look for him. Winston sees this as a sign that Don must visit his ex-girlfriends in order to unlock his past and bring some purpose to his empty life.

Don’s apathy is oppositely reflected in Winston’s vigor – unlike his rich friend, he has three jobs, a slew of kids, a wife, and barely enough time to foster his newest obsession with mystery novels. He is supremely busy, and Jarmusch often cleverly frames him through windows, or getting in or out of his car. Wright and Murray make an odd couple, but they have a natural and believable camaraderie, along with some superb comic timing.

Winston wants to help his friend, so he does all the planning, and pushes Don into the trip with a specially made mix CD for the occasion. “Broken Flowers” takes its time and moves slow, making it easier to notice the film’s many authentic details (such as Don’s car trip from every airport beginning with the same song – track one of the mix CD).

broken-flowers-murray-conroy-mcdonaldThe astute minimalist script, written specifically for Murray by the director, has lots of small moments that loom large in the wider picture of Don’s life. When his current girlfriend, played by Julie Delpy, leaves him, she sums up his utter detachment from life perfectly: “I feel like your mistress,” she says to Don, walking out the door, “only you’re not married.” After she’s gone, he resumes doing what he was doing before – sitting blankly on the couch.

Jarmusch sets a mellow pace that transfixes, employing quiet fade-outs to black after every scene, and slow fade-ins to begin the next. For example, when the camera fades up from Don on the couch, he is in the same spot, except face down now, just waking up.

This editing style allows us to imagine time in Murray’s shoes. The scenes Jarmusch chooses to show us may seem common enough at first, but are infinitely revealing – like when Don sees qualities of himself in young man on the bus — a smartly dressed, handsome young man who is being ogled by some teenage girls. It’s a wake-up call when he realizes how sad is gaze is, and its a great moment that points out how Jarmusch is actually showing us very precise snapshots that are only deceivingly mundane.

All of the women (Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton) portraying the exes are equally good, but Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”) is particularly heartbreaking as Dora, an ex-hippie whose idealism has about-faced in adulthood. Conroy matches Murray’s understated expressivism perfectly, and in a very brief scene together, they have a fleeting, tender connection and produce the biggest laugh of the film. Like all the laughs in “Broken Flowers,” it rings with a painful truth.

In a movie full of quiet, telling moments, it is Don who puts it all together:

The past is dead. We don’t know what the future will bring. So all we have is the present.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Reed August 23, 2011 at 10:44 am

I think this film didn’t do better because the conclusion is not satisfying to the majority of moviegoers. But it is to me. Any grand epiphany or surprising revelation would have skipped away from the tone set by this picture in the first place.

For me, it helped that I was a fan of Jarmusch going in. His movies often hinge on the fact that it’s a big world out there and we’re all just playing our small, relatively inconsequential part. In this film, that message is more subtle, but works all the better. Life has gone on all around Don Johnston, while he stood on the sidelines. But yet he’s still connected to these people, even the ones who tried to forget about him – and those he forgot about. There’s no overwhelming message here. It’s just a good story with great characters. It’s very entertaining for me, and worth watching multiple times. Great write-up, Eric!


2 Eric Melin August 23, 2011 at 11:16 am

Definitely worth watching multiple times–thanks, Reed!

Yeah, the whole time I kept thinking a definite resolution to the journey was needed. When that resolution turned out to be a personal one (visualized by Don at the crossroads, but done so in a way that didn’t feel forced) and not a simple plot resolution (finding his son), the movie had deeper meaning for me.

It does help that you’ve seen some Jarmusch films before, but I think anyone that enjoyed “Lost in Translation” would dig this as well.


3 Xavier August 24, 2011 at 7:13 am

My favorite part of the film is that all of the past girlfriends he meets serve as a sort of microcosm of life, the various pathways don could have taken but is ultimately glad that he didn’t. He didn’t really choose any path and is slightly unsatisfied with the result of that as well. He knows what he doesn’t want from life but doesn’t exactly know what he wants either. The fact that meeting (possibly) his son doesn’t magically solve that added to the power of the film for me.


4 Eric Melin August 24, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Great insight. How many of us know what we DON’T want? Perfect. Thanks, man.


5 Oliver August 25, 2011 at 10:45 am

Good write-up. I think many of us will always be glad to have the opportunity to discuss a film this delectable. Nevertheless… how is this an “overlooked movie”? It won the Grand Prix at Cannes and currently possesses a more-than-enthusiastic 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. In addition, it made close to $50 million on a $10 million budget. Therefore, I would say it is neither critically nor commercially “overlooked”, wouldn’t you?


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