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.