Nearly all of Jim Jarmusch’s 12 feature films to date are centred around a leading man, often playing a character in the midst of an existential crisis, whose sentiments and actions come to define the spirit of the movie. These men vary in their cultural backgrounds and beliefs, from Forest Whitaker’s samurai hit man, Ghost Dog, to Adam Driver’s bus-driving poet, Paterson. A multitude of emotions and personal ambitions are conveyed through these stoical roles, which continue to evolve with each new film. Here are nine performances from actors that embody those ideals and helped establish Jarmusch as one of America’s finest independent filmmakers.
Permanent Vacation (1980) – Chris Parker as Allie
Jarmusch’s first feature follows a nomadic slacker called Allie as he interacts with a series of eccentric individuals in New York City. Allie’s obsessed with the jazz musician Charlie Parker, but is clueless about his life goals. In Permanent Vacation, possibly the most insular of all of Jarmusch’s films, Allie’s monologues reveal an intelligent and intriguing character, which is offset by the actor’s awkward body language and monotone delivery.
Stranger than Paradise (1984) – John Lurie as Willie
The multitalented John Lurie worked on Jarmusch’s first three films as both actor and composer. Here he plays Willie, who initially appears to be an aggressive and ignorant New York hipster. This impression is heightened on the arrival of his Hungarian cousin Eva, as initially he dismisses her for no reason. Slowly, however, her charms win him over and Willie’s hostile front fades. Eva’s caring persona offers him a close friendship that was seemingly non-existent in his life before. Lurie brings a desperate vulnerability to Willie as he tries to cling on to that attachment.
Down by Law (1986) – Tom Waits as Zack
Although Down by Law is a three-header, Tom Waits’s character Zack feels like the lead, as we have a greater understanding of his story and what he has lost. A cool and casual radio DJ, Zack is wrongfully imprisoned. On the inside he begrudgingly befriends his cellmates, the confrontational Jack (John Lurie) and the erratic clown Roberto (Roberto Benigni). Zack acts ambivalently towards his situation, even maintaining his nonchalant attitude after the three escape. Waits gives a remarkably restrained performance, offering a contrast to his animated comrades and helping to amplify the film’s melancholy.
Dead Man (1995) – Johnny Depp as William Blake
This postmodern western follows the spiritual quest of William Blake, a timid and polite accountant who is out of his depth in the wild west. While on his doomed journey he befriends a Native American named Nobody, who he believes is the poet William Blake reincarnated. This isn’t a character study but an exploration of Native American culture and a subtle tribute to the work of the poet set against a backdrop of bleak savagery. Depp plays Blake as a man with pure intentions, and although he cannot avoid the violence of the era you can sense the goodwill in his heart.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) – Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog
Ghost Dog is an African American hitman who lives his life according to the spiritual teachings of Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. Many of his jobs come courtesy of a mafia mobster to whom he owes his life. Despite his violent livelihood, Ghost Dog is a gentle soul who cares for pigeons, reads books and eats ice cream. He’s an honorable man with an air of intimidation about him, but you can feel the tenderness that lies beneath – though this is somewhat masked by the deadpan performance of Forest Whitaker.
Broken Flowers (2005) – Bill Murray as Don Johnston
After receiving an anonymous letter informing him that he has a son, Don Johnston (Bill Murray) embarks on a soul-searching road trip to revisit his old flames and discover the origin of the note. As Don’s journey progresses a hint of remorse seeps in as he realises that he has become a bitter and cynical man who has denied happiness to himself and others. Although he cannot fix his past errors, Don returns home a wiser and more enlightened man. Broken Flowers relies upon the straight-faced sensibilities of Murray, who brings an air of heartfelt regret to Don’s character.
The Limits of Control (2009) – Isaach de Bankolé as Lone Man
The Limits of Control is a spy thriller with all the action and excitement stripped away. In the hands of another actor the Lone Man character would be dry, but the magnetic presence of Isaach de Bankolé prevents that from happening. De Bankolé barely speaks in the movie but is highly focused and conveys great understanding when listening to other characters discussing art and culture. He, like the audience, is trying to unpick the mysteries encountered by studying the symbolism on screen and dissecting the actions of individuals.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – Tom Hiddleston as Adam
As a vampire, Adam requires blood, but that thirst isn’t what drives him. Having been alive for centuries Adam has acquired a love for music and science, but has become utterly despondent about the world around him. Tom Hiddleston utters scathing lines with the kind of ferocity that we would associate with his Marvel character, Loki. Yet that type of confidence isn’t on display in Only Lovers Left Alive. Hiddleston presents viewers with a character who retains a small inkling of affection for the world, but his own skepticism has become an infectious poison.
Paterson (2016) – Adam Driver as Paterson
When dissecting Paterson, you begin to see traces of many of Jarmusch’s lead characters up to this point. He is calm and collected yet possesses great warmth and compassion. He’s an aspiring poet but is perfectly content in his job as a bus driver. Adam Driver gives viewers glimpses of emotion with subtle gestures, like a knowing glance or a wry smile while listening to others having meaningless conversations, which may or may not inspire him. Paterson is Jarmusch’s most serene film, and Driver personifies that tranquil state of mind.