Road to Nowhere
Chris Wisniewski on Broken Flowers

It’s literally the oldest story in the book. But what accounts for the enduring appeal of the voyage—what has made it, from Homer and Joyce to Spielberg and Kubrick to Mastercard commercials—such a persistent cultural trope? It’s a silly question, of course. There are plenty of reasons, from innate human wanderlust to lazy storytelling. A more pertinent question, then, might be to ask what the odyssey (lower case “o”) still has to offer ambitious and creative storytellers—how can an artist say something original with this sturdiest of sturdy old metaphors?

To start answering that question, we might begin at last year’s Cannes film festival, where we found new films from two of contemporary cinema’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers, the once-great German director Wim Wenders and American indie standby Jim Jarmusch, who share a preoccupation with the journey in their moviemaking. In Wenders’s best films, like Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, and Paris, Texas, it’s an inarticulable deficiency, something missing, that propels his damaged men forward. In that sense, Jarmusch is a close kin to Wenders. His debut feature, Stranger than Paradise, and, to a lesser extent, his masterpiece, Dead Man, are much more about what motivates the journey in the first place than the ultimate destination. That’s never been more true for Jarmusch than in his new film Broken Flowers, which, in its distillation of the road movie down to its most predictable, clichéd elements, has a way of clarifying exactly where he’s been headed all along.

Broken Flowers begins—unsurprisingly, like many of Jarmusch’s films—with a journey. An anonymous letter travels, by air, by truck, and by foot, from its author’s hands to the doorstep of Don Johnston (Bill Murray). The letter’s arrival coincides with the departure of Don’s girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy). And the rest of the film plays as a series of arrivals and departures, as Don travels—by air, by car, and by foot, to visit five of his former lovers (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, and the grave of a fifth killed in a car accident). Don does have an objective: The mysterious letter has informed him that he has a 19-year-old son he never knew about, and so each ex could well be the mother of his child as well as a ghost from a long-forgotten past.

It becomes clear relatively early that the son is Jarmusch’s McGuffin. Don is reluctant to make the trip; it’s only at the insistence of his friend Winston (Jeffrey Wright), who functions as his personal travel agent as well as his only confidant, that he leaves home in the first place. It’s as though this search is hoisted upon him—he takes it up only because he has nothing better to do with his time. And the pacing and casting of the movie leave no doubt that Don will make every leg of the journey, regardless of what, if anything, he finds along the way.

All of this might lead us to the conclusion that the trip, and not the long-lost son, is the point of Broken Flowers. Isn’t that the most tired cliché of all road-film clichés—while a character travels in search of something, he ends up learning other, more fundamental things along the way? That’s perhaps Jarmusch’s boldest sleight of hand. The repetitive and predictable stops on the trip don’t really seem to teach Don anything. He gets in his car, the same bouquet of pink flowers in hand, plays the same CD, and drives through a geographically unspecific American netherworld distinguished only by markings of social class and cultural milieu. He’s going through the motions, even if we have absolutely no idea where he is or where he’s headed. Each woman conforms perfectly to stereotype, and each encounter provides an abundance of evidence as to the letter’s author. But aside from some hilarious scenes, delightful acting, and vivid characterization, we might wonder if this journey does have a point after all. Until it ends.

The last 15 minutes of Broken Flowers subtly recast everything that’s come before. Whatever Don’s initial reluctance, he acquiesces to Winston’s prodding because he is, actually, looking for something, even if he doesn’t know what that something is. And while the end raises more questions than it really answers, it offers the possibility that Don, in seeing what’s become of the people he’s left behind, has at least more of a sense of what he isn’t. It’s that lack that pushes the film and Don’s journey forward. Broken Flowers leaves Don alone, on a road, going nowhere. It crystallizes many of the themes latent in Jarmusch’s work, that distinctive take on the road film that distinguishes the films of a Jarmusch and Wenders from those riddled with the clichés they so brilliantly send up: some journeys don’t have a destination; some riddles don’t have an answer; and whatever you’re looking for, you always only have whatever you’ve got right now.