by Kevin Pellegrinelli
Since his 1980 directorial debut Permanent Vacation, no director has marched (or, in his case, strutted like a badass) to the beat of their own drummer like Jim Jarmusch. One of independent cinema’s crown jewels, Jarmusch has made a point to hop genres and tones without ever sacrificing the elements that make his films quintessentially and absolutely his own. His style, his humor, and his attention to the human condition are rare, eccentric, and extremely moving, but also personal and specific enough to the point where larger audiences may find his work inaccessible at first. With the recent release of The Dead Don’t Die, his zombie comedy starring the likes of Billy Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez, and an insane amount of other great actors, Jarmusch finally finds himself facing the mass market, and even noted himself that this is the first time one of his films has been given any kind of significant advertising push (likely thanks to the presence of Driver and Gomez). While the response to Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic style from a wider audience can’t be predicted, this occasion provides an opportune time to examine what makes his work so special and why it always seems to land so well with the devout audience he does have.
When diving deep into any director worth talking at length about, there’s always a very clear connective tissue across their work. Whether it be the clinical approaches of Kubrick and Fincher, or the frenetic, time-spanning structure Scorsese so easily employs, there are things about the work of great filmmakers that immediately let you know that you’re watching one of their films. When it comes to Jarmusch, there are quite a few of these elements. There’s his choice to keep the camera locked down, his long takes, his extremely brilliant use of, and taste in, music, and his somehow quick-witted yet deadpan dialogue that delivers laughs, poignancy, and an awareness of the world around us so effortlessly. But what really makes Jarmusch stand out is his observation and seemingly high regard for what many would consider the mundane.
As previously mentioned, Jarmusch tends to hop genres with ease. Be it a road movie, a prison film, a Western, a hitman story, a romantic comedy, or a vampire film, Jarmusch has taken a stab at each. What he does so brilliantly though is completely throw out the tropes of each genre in order to examine them through his own lens, making each film a new experience for his audience. Instead of feeding into the hard edges of old prison films, the forced quirkiness and structure of a rom-com, or the suspense and intrigue present in any story involving a hitman, Jarmusch leans into the in between time of them all.
Instead of horse chases and shootouts present in most Westerns, Jarmusch takes the time to send his protagonist on a rattling journey of self-discovery in his brilliant Dead Man. Rather than place his hitman in James Bond level action scenes, we instead get to see the tedious inner-workings of the job and the laser focus of the man doing it in The Limits of Control. And while he gives us glimpses of the bloodlust and the supernatural powers of one of pop cultures most well tread grounds – vampires – he focuses more on their gradual disillusion with the world surrounding them that they’ll never be free of in the excellent Only Lovers Left Alive.
Choosing to ignore the conventionally more exciting aspects of these types of stories is a bold choice, and one many directors would not find easy to pull off. What makes Jarmusch so successful across his filmography is his ability to zero in on moments that, even in the genres furthest from our own lives, every single person sitting in an audience will be able to relate to. Allowing a couple to dance to an entire song in their kitchen in a standout scene from Down by Law allows a more grounded sense of romance than the typical romance film (let alone a film about escaped convicts) would. Watching Adam Driver’s every day routine in Paterson multiple times lets us connect to his bus driver character in a much more profound way, so much so that when his routine is finally interrupted, we get the same sense of excitement and spontaneity that we’d feel in our own lives due to the slightest or most insignificant kind of change. Characters deciding to simply shift their road trip plan in Stranger Than Paradise creates the sense of uncertainty and quiet exhilaration that comes whenever a split decision drives us to go off in search of new horizons.
Jarmusch’s films aren’t completely free of what makes these genres so timeless and appealing. He knows when to let the action flourish in something like Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, and he lets Bill Murray wrestle with reconnecting with his exes in Broken Flowers like any rom-com would, but his reliance on the more mundane parts of his characters’ lives – the moments where they sit with things, mull things over, reflect, and make decisions – is his key in giving us a deeply human experience time and time again. When we see a character on screen simply enjoying a cup of coffee or preparing for a confrontation (rather than just throwing us into the confrontation), there’s so much more investment in what comes after. Even with his most recent outing, the zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die, in which Jarmusch amps up the genre elements more than he ever has, he makes time to explore materialism, the unreliable media, mortality, the relationships within a close-knit small town, and existential dread in the face of impending doom – things we can all attach to. Plenty of directors do a great job of connecting the audience to their characters, but Jarmusch’s way just feels so unique and pronounced, as he shows his characters worrying about the same kinds of things as all of us. His character moments are the kind you smile at and nod in agreement all the way through without even realizing until he’s moved on to the next scene.
No matter what genre he’s playing in, Jarmusch’s gift is never shying away from the realness, the awkwardness, or the beauty in the simplicity of our daily lives. No matter what extravagant circumstance his characters end up in, he starts them off in the same shoes as us as best he can. It gives us something extra to latch on to. There’s more room for compassion and frustration. Moments hit us the same way they hit his characters. We laugh when they laugh, we get angry when they get angry, and we’re upset when they’re upset. What truly puts Jarmusch in his own league thought is that he never has to use any tricks to get us there. He simply relies on the authenticity of grounded human experience, knowing he can round out the rest of the film however he wants, injecting his unmistakable coolness into whatever sandbox he’s playing in. It’s why actors like Billy Murray, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Nicoletta Braschi, Tom Waits, and, more recently, Adam Driver want to work with him again and again. It’s why his collaborators from project to project are usually the same. And it’s why the audience he does have is a very loyal one that anxiously awaits his next picture. There is real humanity in Jarmusch’s work because he finds truth in those in between times we all go through. Some may call that the mundane, and it may test a more casual moviegoer’s patience, but Jarmusch seems to see it as the extraordinary, and almost always gets it to play that way.