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The 10 Best Performances In The Films Of Jim Jarmusch

The 10 Best Performances In The Films Of Jim Jarmusch

It all seems so obvious in retrospect. Of course, of all the parts Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston were born to play, a pair of lovelorn vampires battling the ennui of immortality in a Jim Jarmusch movie should always have been at the top of the list. “Only Lovers Left Alive,” which opens this weekend (review here), makes good on that logline and then some, delivering Jarmusch’s most deliriously enjoyable film in ages (see our complete retrospective of his films here), and showcasing as ever a cast that turn in terrific performances right down to the smallest supporting performer. But it’s Hiddleston and Swinton who carry the film, and they do so with such louche grace that they make their vampiric lifestyle seem dark and twisted and tortured and yet also so seductive and alluring and downright sexy, that at the potential cost of our eternal souls we’d proffer our own necks to them at the drop of a hat.

In fact, it’s a strange truth that Jarmusch, in being 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. Not that he creates films solely as acting showcases, but more that he has an uncanny knack for choosing actors attuned to his own sensibilities, thereafter unlocking extra levels in their characters as a result. So if the stylishness of his movies, and the definitive auteurist stamp that Jarmusch leaves on them all somewhat belie his talent for eliciting empathetic performances within the tight parameters of his peculiar vision, we thought we’d go about redressing that imbalance a little and use the occasion of the release of “Only Lovers Left Alive” (which is cause for celebration, believe us) as an excuse to take a look back, and choose our ten favorite performances in Jim Jarmusch films to date.

Johnny Depp 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. We’ve written often and long about our love for Jarmusch’s haunting, yet also goofy existential Western, from its Ansel Adams-inspired black and white cinematography, to the ensemble cast that includes Iggy Pop in a dress and Robert Mitchum in his last role, to the sparse, beautifully anachronistic Neil Young score, but it also features one of our very favorite Jarmusch performances, and one that now serves as a timely reminder of what a certain then-exciting, then-young actor could do, before he ran away to be a pirate. Depp, despite his undeniable beauty, always had the ability to project insecurity, even shyness, and it’s this quality that he taps into so effectively in this role, making his transformation from shambling, subservient clerk to murderous outlaw all the more satisfying, yet never letting go of the strain of thoughtful melancholy that pervades the whole film. Blake, a city boy unfamiliar with the rough code of the frontier wilderness journeys for miles, sometimes accompanied by his stoic Native American sidekick Nobody (Gary Farmer, who returns briefly as this character in “Ghost Dog”), sometimes alone, 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. Often Jarmusch films, “Only Lovers Left Alive” included, have a gloss of style and droll wit that evokes this sort of existential ennui; in “Dead Man,” however, he plumbs its depths more than ever before or since, aided by the oceanic, but underplayed depth of feeling and thoughtfulness and weariness that Depp brings to Blake — a man peeping into the abyss, finding the abyss looking back, and coming to the realization that it’s one staring contest he can’t possibly win.

Armin Mueller-Stahl in “Night On Earth
The agony of compiling this particular list (ok, maybe “agony” is overstating a little) is that Jarmusch is prone to including a feast of quirky, eccentric cameos in his films, small moments that might well make it into the hall of fame for another director, but that we have to overlook here in favor of more comprehensive, meatier roles. And that problem is exacerbated by several of Jarmusch’s releases being antholgies of loosely linked vignettes, such as the charmingly uneven “Coffee and Cigarettes,” “Mystery Train” and also “Night on Earth.” This latter contains a host of terrific performances, from Roberto Benigni’s Italian cab driver, to the three drunken Finnish guys being told the saddest story they’ve ever heard, but we’re going to call out the New York section especially, in which all three actors (Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez and Armin Mueller-Stahl) are strong, but it’s Mueller-Stahl who breaks your heart. Playing an East German ex-circus clown who lets his passenger drive because he’s not familiar with the car’s transmission, the actor creates one of the sweetest characters Jarmusch has ever written, riffing on his lack of English as a conduit to some humorous exchanges, as in “Down by Law,” but mostly letting the character’s bearlike, big-hearted naivete shine through, especially when contrasted with the fast-talking manic energy of Esposito and Perez,. Mueller-Stahl was Oscar-nominated for “Shine” but with terrific supporting turns in “Music Box,” “Kafka” and more recently “Eastern Promises” to his name, the Wadja and Fassbinder regular should be more well known. For anyone interested in looking into his filmography, we recommend the New York segment of “Night on Earth” as an entry point–it’s a beautifully unpatronizing portrait of the immigrant experience, and a very funny take on how strangely hopeful a place a New York City taxicab can be. As well as just a tiny bit terrifying.

Bill Murray 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. Because mostly this performance is anti-performance, characterized by stillness and beat-taking reaction, as Murray’s character absorbs caresses and truths and blows alike (from the far less restrained women of the film), the still center of a storm he set in motion unwittingly years before. Here Murray, ever the most underplaying, stonefaced of comedians (think Buster Keaton), meets Jim Jarmusch, ever the most deadpan of directors and the results are terrific for fans of either man, with this performance 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 thought 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,” he said during a Reddit AMA. “And then 6-7 months later someone asked me to work again, so I worked again, but for a few months I thought I couldn’t do any better than that.”

And again it’s true that Jarmusch, for all his own idiosyncrasies and quirks, seems to have a delivered a role that feels utterly perfect for an actor who has his own, very defined and eccentric charisma (the frequency with which the director pulls this off for his various stars surely belies the notion that he’s the one-trick pony his detractors claim). It’s rare that a character is so perfectly modulated as to play to an actor’s indefinable strengths, but Don Johnston is entirely that for Bill Murray, and it’s impossible to believe that the film would have half its power with anyone else in that role. Who else can we be so endlessly fascinated by, read so much into and onto, when he’s doing nothing but staring straight ahead, at nothing but the future that isn’t here yet?

Roberto Benigni in “Down By Law
Honestly, any one of Benigni’s appearances for Jarmusch could have made this list, with his segment of “Night on Earth” also being one of our absolute favorite moments, but we’ll go with “Down by Law” because he’s in it for longer and at this point Benigni was a totally unknown quantity to American audiences. Perhaps what makes him so indelible here is he’s actually the converse of the typical Jarmuschian character — effusive where they are often taciturn, ebullient where they are more likely downtrodden, and relentlessly optimistic where they are generally of a lugubrious worldview. But this counterpoint is also what makes him absolutely irresistible, playing Roberto, the third member of the trio of inmates who form an unlikely alliance and break out of jail together. His broken English and continuing efforts to learn provide a running gag throughout the film, and in fact Benigni himself, already a famous comedian in Italy, was attempting to learn English at the same time, which accounts perhaps for the authenticity and charm of some moments, that could otherwise just be “let’s laugh at the foreign guy” shallow. Because that’s really the key to this terrific performance. As much as Roberto is the outsider and the one who on the surface should be the most vulnerable and isolated, the infectious lovability of his character means that on some level we know he’s going to be okay — he will always find friends — where Jack and Zack, with their comparative world-wisdom and street smarts are going to find friendships much harder to come by. The great trick with this kind of open hearted, sunny-side-up character is not making him seem like a fool, but Benigni’s occasional flashes of cleverness don’t allow that. And more importantly, we get the sense that Jarmusch himself may not be anything like this guy (we’d assume he has more affinity for the Waits or Lurie characters) but he’s pretty much in awe of the resilience of Roberto’s good nature, and so, quite to the contrary, we admire him even as we love him and laugh at him.

Isaach de Bankole in “The Limits of Control
By far the most divisive film in Jarmusch’s catalogue, and one that even lost him some previous fans, it certainly is hard to defend ‘Control’ from accusations of pretentiousness and self-indulgence as Jarmusch does push his enigmatic, anti-narrative impulses further than ever before here. But if there is one element that feels right and unforced, it’s de Bankole’s central performance, finally taking a Jarmusch lead after many supporting performances (most eyecatchingly in his other assassin film “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.”) Here playing an ascetic Jean-Pierre Melville-style character living in a Lynchian world where dream states and reality can fuse and the walls between the real and the imagined are porous, and manipulable, de Bankole’s a vortex of charisma, from his sharp suits to his sharper cheekbones; he’s the relaxed essence of cool at the heart of a cavalcade of starry cameos and narrative repetitions, so much so that the film seems to warp and bend around him. In fact, his performance is so surefooted that it may contribute to the frustration of the viewer whose own fragmented, flustered idea of what’s maybe going on is ironically counterpointed the sense of purpose and confidence that de Bankole radiates. Impassive in the finest Jarmsuchian tradition, his performance therefore also becomes one in which the tiniest flicker of emotion feels volcanic in its effect, as in this clip where he smiles, ever so briefly, watching a flamenco act.

John Lurie 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. While we ourselves are fans of his later, more “compromised” work, we do have a very soft spot in our hearts for this seminal indie, of which the undeniable lynchpin is the central performance by John Lurie. In fact, this was already Jarmusch’s second collaboration with Lurie who featured in his debut “Permanent Vacation,” but 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.

Youki Kudoh in “Mystery Train
If “Mystery Train” is indeed “a valentine to the allure of the American way of pop culture” then Youki Kudoh’s performance, as one half of the Japanese couple that make up the “Far from Yokohama,” first segment in the triptych, the pink lipstick heart that dots the “i.” Not only the center of the film’s most affecting segment, Kudoh also provides its most memorable moments, bouncing through the wasteland landscape with her suitcase suspended on a stick between her and her boyfriend (Masatoshi Nagase), lighting his cigarette with a zippo held between her toes, or, most iconically, smearing his mouth with lipstick in a messy kiss in an effort to change his mood. As with other great Jarmusch performances that don’t have the benefit of a whole film in which to play out, Kudoh does a fine job of making us feel like her Mitsuko, aside from her wonky belief system which unites the Empire State Building with Elvis and Madonna in some sort of weird trinity, has a whole life outside this story. And so in contrast to some actors’ interpretation of the Jarmusch style, which is to go to the more artificial, airless end of the spectrum, Kudoh is in fact a breath of fresh air, a breeze that blows through the film, and again shows us that while Jarmusch may have a strong affinity for the recurring character of the impassive, deadpan man whose droll reactions to the world are so minimal as to be absurdist, when he happens upon that character’s converse, as with Roberto Benigni or Kudoh here, he’s just as enchanted. And so Kudoh pouts and fidgets and frowns and pulls faces, but she’s totally unmannered for all that, and delivers a charming performance that might not be among the most typical of Jarmusch’s canon but certainly feels like one of the freest.

Tilda Swinton in “Broken Flowers
Of the many terrific female performance in “Broken Flowers” (really Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone or Frances Conroy could also have taken this spot), we’re giving the entry to Swinton for a couple of reasons. Obviously, her glorious turn in “Only Lovers Left Alive” is still fresh in our minds, but also she plays so against type here, and takes the role of the final ex of Don’s toward whom the film’s rhythm has been crescendoing, that she’s in many ways got the trickiest part of all. Also, the bitterness and rancor that her character, Penny, still harbors toward Don is in marked contrast to the curiosity, defensiveness, or nostalgia-tinged melancholia that has characterized some of his previous encounters, and so it shifts the tone of the film, making serious and consequential what could otherwise drift off into some picaresque flight of fancy. But Swinton is nothing if not resolutely committed and supremely confident in the role of the trailer-park biker chick, in fact she’s so convincing we barely recognise her as the cultured, alabaster aesthete she has more recently played for the same director. And of all the many exchanges in a film brimming with two-hander scenes, she’s such a perfect foil to Murray’s Don that we could watch the two of them play off each other forever. In fact, our only criticism here is that there’s not enough of her–still, that she manages to wring so much out of so little screen time is little short of amazing.

Forest Whitaker in “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
If this list has an outlier, this is probably it, but then the film it comes from is, as much as any, an outlier too. Forest Whitaker’s performance in “Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai” 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 commuicates via carrier pigeon, and has no friends bar a little girl and a Haitian ice cream man who speaks no English (the also-terrific Isaach de Bankole). With all that potential wackiness, Whitaker’s instinct to play Ghost Dog absolutely straight is somehow crucial to the effectiveness of this defiantly odd genre mashup (hip-hop, mafia movies and Kurosawa). 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, and no defence when his “masters” turn upon him for their own petty reasons. 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. It makes the skewed tragedy of how it all unfolds cut all the deeper, and is one of the most fascinating aspects of one of Jarmusch’s oddest movies — odd especially because it’s possible (even if we wouldn’t suggest doing so) to view it as the most straightforward genre movie in his filmography.

Tom Waits in “Down By Law
With almost every Tom Waits movie performance a portrait of marginalization, usually he’s on the edges of the story, a little texture for the background, as with “The Fisher King” playing a Vietnam vet/”moral red traffic light” or in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” as a deranged, bug-eating lackey Renfield. But 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, unlike say his turn in “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” 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 (oh, this “sad and beautiful world”) that Waits projects even when he’s not saying anything, or interacting at all. Waits has such personality, and exudes such a personal, idiosyncratic charisma from the bullish set of his face to his hangdog, twitchy physicality to the gorgeous gravel of his voice, that 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. In fact in the film’s preference for langorous takes and atmospheric visuals over snappy storytelling it’s possible to see a correlation with Waits’ music which is often as much about rhythm and mood as melody. It’s hard to see Waits ever delivering a movie performance more defining than this one, (his soundtrack is pitch-perfect too), so it’s a good thing the infinite rewatchability of “Down by Law” means he doesn’t really have to.

Jarmusch’s films are so liberally peppered with spicy cameos and surprising bit parts that we easily could have filled this list three times over. But some that actually hurt us to exclude were: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins‘ deeply funny supporting role as the concierge in “Mystery Train,” if for no other reason than it’s such a sweet call back to his version of “I Put a Spell On You” which was such an intrinsic part of Jarmusch’s breakthrough, “Stranger than Paradise“; basically the entire, stacked supporting cast of “Dead Man,” (Michael Wincott, Jared Harris, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, John Hurt, Robert Mitchum, Alfred Molina, Lance Henrikson, Crispin Glover, Gabriel Byrne, the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes et al) but the greatness of Gary Farmer as Nobody in particular; and that’s all before we even get into “Coffee and Cigarettes” in which the Bill Murray, RZA & GZA segment, as well as the Steve Coogan/Alfred Molina one are probably our favorites, closely chased by Cate Blanchett meeting herself and the Roberto Benigni/Steven Wright one that started it all.

Still, all that said, we just know with a resume this crammed with delicious, fetishizable performances, we’ll have missed some that you adore, so tell us all about them below. And in the meantime, because it’s the greatest thing ever, check out the entire Jim Jarmusch episode of “Fishing With John,” the bafflingly short-lived, now Criterion-approved show in which John Lurie takes a succession of his friends out fishing.

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