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The Films Of Jim Jarmusch: A Retrospective

by The Playlist Staff
July 17, 2012 11:09 AM
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Dead Man
"Dead Man" (1995)
A spiritual psychedelic anti-Western to end all anti-Westerns, many argue that “Dead Man” is Jarmusch’s masterpiece, and it’s a claim hard to argue. Featuring a lonely and ominous reverb-soaked guitar-noise soundtrack by Neil Young and utterly breathtaking black and white cinematography by the great Robby Mueller (known for his work with Wim Wenders), the atmospheres and aesthetics of “Dead Man” are top notch, helping shape a tenor that is sinister, solemn and elegiac. Johnny Depp stars as William Blake, an bookish accountant who travels to an inhospitable, end-of-the-line frontier town to claim a job, and finds himself on the run after he inadvertently kills a man in self defense. With a bounty on his head, Blake runs into the excommunicated Indian named “Nobody” who mistakes him for the famous poet, all the while seemingly presciently aware of his fate and then taking him on a journey that prepares him for entrance into the spiritual world. Featuring an outstanding cast of character actors -- Gary Farmer as Nobody with appearances by Robert Mitchum, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Jared Harris, Alfred Molina, Cripsin Glover, John Hurt and more -- the film is idiosyncratically rich and textured through almost every cinematic element known to man. Called “the best movie of the end of the 20th century” by pop culture essayist Greil Marcus, its evaluation has long since been reappraised, but even folks like Roger Ebert were short-sightedly confounded by the film during its day. Their loss. Drenched in an unnerving sense of looming death and emptiness, the haunting “Dead Man,” also manages to be oddly sardonic and melancholy with its reconciled acceptance of the inevitable. An unforgettable post-modern classic. [A+]

Ghost Dog
"Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai" (1999)
Reverberating with the rhythms of an original score by the RZA, Jarmusch’s hip hop genre experiment stars Forest Whitaker, decidedly playing against type as the title character. The moody, introspective Ghost Dog, once rescued by a sympathetic mob boss, now honors his retainer as organized crime’s most inscrutable hitman. A complete stylistic right turn, “Ghost Dog” owes its inspirations to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, as Whitaker’s taciturn bear of a hero is entirely a man out of time. Not only are his traditions and beliefs outdated, many of them based on the ancient Japanese tome The Hagakure, but he’s a hoodie-cloaked Luddite, camping out on rooftops, sending messages via carrier pigeons. Most amusingly, Jarmusch emphasizes the bleeding together of traditions: Ghost Dog openly heists cars with fairly sophisticated technology, while the elderly Italian gangsters rap along to Flava Flav. Despite the deadpan amusement of Henry Silva lecturing colleagues in regards to ancient civilizations, “Ghost Dog” also works as a straightforward genre exercise, with a number of slick shootout sequences emphasizing stealth and secrecy over overt violence, with almost no backing music. But the entire film would fall apart were it not for the nakedly human turn by Whitaker, who bestows his shadowy countenance with an easy smile and a delicate touch that makes it simple to see how he’d befriend a young girl and an overzealous non-English speaking ice cream man (a charming Isaach De Bankolé) in the midst of his bloodletting. [A]

Coffee And Cigarettes
"Coffee And Cigarettes" (2003)
The now verboten (at least in the Big Apple) indoor smoking found in Jarmusch’s 17-years-in-the-making feature, composed of eleven short films unified by the common theme of conversation shared in tandem with coffee and cancer stick huffing, suggests perhaps that time stands still in the otherworldly environs of “Coffee And Cigarettes.” It’s a world where Bill Murray can serve GZA and RZA, who prefer herbal tea to straight caffeine, and one where Steve Coogan can tap into a well-practiced celebrity jerkwad persona only to be shown up by a kindly, earnest, and unassuming Alfred Molina. There’s a prevailing era of cool here with icons and respected craftsmen (among them Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Steven Wright, Jack and Meg White, and many more) rubbing shoulders without making a big thing out of it, but maybe the navel-gazing that comes with that is detrimental to the overall product. Some conversations pop while others are still-born. A curio, to be certain but not a major contribution in Jarsmuch’s filmography, nor one that sees the director move forward in any considerable way. [B]

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  • hank | July 19, 2012 4:12 AMReply

    wow. man, there are some very generous ratings here for his later work.

  • KLF | July 17, 2012 4:23 PMReply

    Some are better than others but from "Stranger Than Paradise" on, I don't think he's ever made a bad film, they're all enjoyable in some way. Even "Coffee & Cigarettes" hits some profound and unexpected notes with the last segment. My favorites are "Stranger Than Paradise," "Down by Law," "Dead Man" (his best) and "The Limits of Control."

    It's not perfect, but "The Limits of Control" is vastly underrated, much of it breaks new ground for Jarmusch. It also has a funny, deadpan concept that runs through the entire film: it has all the basic elements of a classic spy film, but none of it comes together that way. Minor spoilers: He goes to exotic locales, but all we see are cheap cafés and art museums. He has a gun, but he never loads it (much less shoots it). There's a girl...well, see it for yourself.

  • arnulf | July 17, 2012 3:54 PMReply


  • Marc | July 17, 2012 2:14 PMReply

    Dead Man and The Limits Of Control are his worst by far.Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law are his best work.

  • Fired | July 17, 2012 2:23 PM

    Oh man, fired.

  • Todd | July 17, 2012 11:38 AMReply

    Dead Man, Ghost Dog and The Limits of Control seem his best work to me.

    I wish as many people saw Dead Man as saw Unforgiven.

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