The Pink Letter: a review of Broken Flowers by A. Biduck
Broken Flowers is Jim Jarmusch's latest American mainstream/art film, which tells a story of Don Johnston (Bill Murray), a middle-aged bachelor who finds himself single again after his latest girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), dumps him because he cannot commit. Upon her exit, Don doesn't even attempt to win her back. Rather, he just sits back on his luxurious leather sofa watching The Private Life of Don Juan in his huge, soulless house, which reeks of emptiness. This same day, incidentally, he receives an anonymous letter in the mail with no return address from an ex-girlfriend of 20 years ago that says he has an 18-year old son from her. It also says that her son (or is it his son?) is in search of meeting him.A couple of days after receiving the letter, Don opens it in front of his next door neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an immigrant from Ethiopia who has a Sherlock Holmesian persona and a serious interest in private eye work. Don's initial reaction to the letter -- like every other reaction to his life -- was deadpan. As he started to give the letter some serious thought, it began to have a deeply and emotional affect over his present reality. He began to regret the past, and cursed with bewilderment, he was mystified with unanswered questions and complex thoughts. As the film progresses, the viewer comes to the realization that this Don Juan like character is more sullen and withdrawn -- a kind of disgrace rather than a reverence. Nevertheless, Winston's private eye investigations to finding a solution to the mystery of the pink letter, embarks Don on a cross-country journey to revisit four of his past girlfriends. In fact, Winston sets up the entire trip, including renting cars, and booking hotel rooms and airline tickets in order for Don to find out which of his past girlfriends was the author to this anonymous pink letter. Don, at first, is reluctant to even set out on this journey, but, nonetheless, he gives in to Winston's ambitious persistence and determinate coaxing, and arrives unannounced at four of his ex-lovers houses with pink flowers in order to solve the mystery of the pink letter. Therefore, without Winston's private eye ambition, Don would probably just continue to ignore reality, and, rather than facing his problems, would let life pass by. The primary conflict of the film comes from the interplay between Don and Winston (the beating heart of their relationship), a relationship that is filled with frustration, drama, and comedy. In fact, Winston is the complete antithesis of Don being a happy middle-class family man with a great wife and a house filled with kids and pets. Don, on the other hand, is a single, white, unlively middle-aged guy, who made a wealth of money from computers. Don's journey turns out to be an emotional roller coaster. His four unannounced visits bring various new surprises, let-downs, and learning lessons to his present reality. The four women of the film include Sharon Stone, who plays Laura, a sensual and widowed closet organizer; Dora (Frances Conroy), a former hippie who became a bland real estate developer; Carmen (Jessica Lange), an animal communicator, and Penny (Tilda Swinton), an angry rural biker babe. This last visit is brief but turns out to be the most brutal. The film presents each acquaintance with awkwardness and humor, while maintaining a realistic quality that the audience can relate to and embody. As a whole, the movie has a mysterious quality to it and the scenes contain, like Don's house, emptiness and longing. The audience experiences each scene with moods of laughter and forlornness, a quality unique to Jarmusch's directing. One also gets a sense that the women in the film are all longing for love. Perhaps they are not begging for Don's love, but they are still longing for it.
Jarmusch specifically wrote the role of Don Johnston for Bill Murray. Jarmusch says, "I don't love Don Johnston. I don't care about some rich guy that made money off computers, had pretty girlfriends and doesn't know what he's doing." He continues, "I didn't feel for him in the beginning, but I want to feel for him in the end." At the beginning of the film it is hard to relate to Don or have any attraction or sentementality for him, namely because Don is more of the silent and passive type, not doing much and not saying much. He just mopes around appearing unaffected. He is more of the reactive type rather than the proactive type. As the film progresses we come to know that Don's self is fragmented, but we don't know why -- it could be from any number of reasons. The ending of the film is left open-ended. We are left with some unanswered questions: does Don even have a son; has he forgotten an ex-lover? It is possible that Don may have a son, yet we are not exactly sure because the letter does not say that it is definite. And Don never thought to interogate the girls about the letter or about them having his son.
By the end of the flick, one does develop a kind of sentamentality for Don. And eventhough Don has self-created problems and he may not be a guy that we would want to be our partner or our father, we have a kind of likabitlity and affection for him. We feel for him. This raises two questions: what is there to like about Don, or better, how is Don a heroic character? One answer is that Don is more of a realistic character. That is, he is more human because he struggles, he's flawed, and he has problems. Many critics interpret the ending as one without closure. On the contrary, I see the ending as very real and common to our lives. The reality is -- and this is why the ending is a kind of climax for me -- although our lives contain contradictions and our are selves are dirempted from our relationships with others, we are not always left with answers to our questions to why things are the way they are. Thus, we are forced to face acceptance. So, we need to take life as it comes and accept it for what it is. That's why we must continue to move on -- life goes on. As a whole, the film, which mainly shows Don tracing out his past, is even more focused on living in the present moment. The audience is able to see this clearly, that is, they see Don for who he really is. So, the film teaches us that by not facing reality and accepting reality, we will get no where except wrestling with reality. In other words, when we do not face life problems or we run away from reality -- like the dilmma Don is experiencing -- the past will come back to haunt us. By the end of this film, Don, like the audience, is still left with open-endedness, unanswered questions, and not getting what t(he)y want(s). Although the film is slow-moving and deadpan -- another common quality to director Jim Jarmusch, the film is loaded with unexpected surprises, fun, and laughs.
The lead-in song to the movie, which features Holly Golightly, is titled "There is an End" by The Greenhornes. The soundtrack features a wide array of artists, which gives the adding a Jamaican jazzy and upbeat feel to the film. Some artists include the Ethiopian composer and musician Mulatu Astatke, the legendary Marvin Gaye, the indie-rockers Brian Jonestown Massacre, Gabriel Fauré, and many more. It also features a three minute segment of Sleep's "Dopesmoker."
About the Director
Jim Jarmusch was born in Akron, Ohio on January 22, 1953. At the age of seventeen, he moved to New York City to study at Columbia University, and in 1975, he received a B.A. in English. He then went to Tisch School of the Arts at New York University to study film. This is where he made his first feature-length film, Permanent Vacation (1982), which was his thesis project. The film following this one, Stranger than Paradise (1984), was by far his most popular. Other feature-length films directed by Jarmusch include Down By Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night On Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995), and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). He also made the rock video and documentary The Year of the Horse (1997) about the rock band Neil Young and Crazy Horse.