It’s difficult not to feel bad for Don Johnston (Bill Murray), the protagonist in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005). Though he made a bunch of money a while back in something to do with computers and doesn’t need to work, he is almost completely alone, even when there are people around. We meet him as his girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) is moving out of his dark, nearly empty, house. As she leaves, she sees his mail on the floor in the foyer, a pink envelope on the top of the stack. “Looks like you got a love letter from one of your other girlfriends,” she says, clearly disgusted. When Don opens the letter, he’s with his next-door neighbor and buddy Winston (Jeffrey Wright), and its contents are a shock.
Don reads that he has a son he doesn’t know about, born nearly 20 years before. This child is searching for Don and may find him. But who is the mother? The letter is unsigned, the postmark too faint to read, and apparently back in the day, Don lived up to the Don Juan characteristics implied in his name…there are quite a few women who could have written it. Amateur detective Winston begins a Sherlock-Holmes-style analysis of the stationery — it’s pink and flowery, and whoever wrote it used an old typewriter with a red ribbon. Don protests that the whole thing is a joke and he doesn’t want to know, but he is overwhelmingly lonely, and as Winston won’t let the mystery alone, Don is soon on a mission to revisit the possible moms. Trekking around the country to unspecified locations, he encounters his former girlfriends’ surprise, rage, indifference, and everything in between. Standouts along the way include Sharon Stone, Chloë Sevigny, the unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, and Alexis Dziena, as Stone’s character’s teenaged daughter, who has interesting fashion sense.
The film’s pace is leisurely but quietly captivating, as Jarmusch uses suspense-style compositions to create understated tension. He takes the advice “show, don’t tell” and applies in a straightforward style. Murray gives a convincing, melancholy performance, with only hints of the goofball we know is there. Don never says, “I’m lonely,” but we see his life contrasted with Winston and his wife Mona’s. Each ex is a fairly well-sketched person, with her own believable personality — all they seem to have in common is that they were blonde. We get to judge for ourselves whether or not they are telling the truth about their lives — Jarmusch doesn’t weigh in. “Look for clues,” Winston urges Don, referring to the typewriter and the pink flowers that will reveal the mother’s identity, but what Don is really looking for is the meaning of his life.
Another part of Broken Flowers‘ charm is its remarkable soundtrack. Where you might expect anguished folk-rock or confessional ballads, Jarmusch and music editor Jay Rabinowitz provide an eclectic mix of upbeat, sunny-sounding tunes. There are multiple tracks from both Ethiopian jazz composer Mulatu Astatke and British singer Holly Golightly, with and without the Greenhornes. What this all means for the moviegoer is an excellent if overlooked little gem of a film.