The best moments in film are sometimes big. Big reveals, big moments, big emotions tying into big realizations. “Luke, I am your father.” “Mein Furher, I can walk!” “You can’t handle the truth!” It’s moments like those that reverberate in pop culture, blaze and sear their way into our collective memories. But I find, more and more, as I dig and expand my cinematic pallete, that it’s really the small moments in films that give those big moments weight. A glance. A softly spoken line. A shaking hand that betrays a hidden fear or grief. A sudden push in on a horrified face, and cleverly insterted edit that makes you rethink everything you know about a character. Little pieces that, taken out of context, might not seem so impressive, but executed in their given story can hit you harder than the biggest plot twist ever. Without these moments, those big ones would diminish, and that’s what I’m going to start focusing on.
The Movie: Broken Flowers
The Gist: Bill Murray plays Don Johnston (“with a T,” he reminds everyone in the film), an aging playboy, who recieves a mysterious letter from an unspecified former lover saying that he is the father to a now 19-year-old son, who has left home to go searching for his father. Prodded and goaded by his nosey neighbor (Jeffery Wright), Johnston tracks down the five possible women who could be this supposed son’s mother, hopeful to find out the truth. As it goes, he ends up learning a few things about himself, too, none of them particularly flattering.
The Moment: Having just finished his (likely) futile quest to discover who the mother of his possible son is, Murray meets a young wanderer who has just enough of a resemblance to what he’d always imagined a son would be like that he comes right out and tells the kid. When the kid reacts with (understandable) amounts of creeped out and takes off, Murray chases him into the street, only to find him gone. Standing there for a moment, alone on a lousy Sunday morning, he realizes his life’s been wasted.
Why It Matters: It’s a moment where the full tragedy of a man’s unfullfilled life snaps into perfect, devestating focus. This is the kind of moment that most actors would kill half their family to play, and in a different kind of film, with a different kind of performance other than the sublime one given here by Bill Murray, it would be played with barely restrained tears, possibly a sniffle, while the soundtrack would tell us–not inform, but tells–that this might be the worst moment of this poor man’s life. This usually hits right before the true catharsis occurs, when our hero recognizes the flaw in his life and by the end will have made the first steps toward becoming a better person. If this film had starred Jack Nicholson instead of Bill Murray, we might have gotten that kind of movie, too (and you could make the argument that About Schmidt is that kind of movie. Not a knock on that film, but just showing the different paths a similar theme can go down).
Broken Flowers, though, forgoes the catharsis and leaves us with just the realization, and even that is played so underhandedly that most who discuss the film never make mention of it, which spurred the idea of making this the inaugural entry to this series. The whole idea is to discuss the important moments in film that rarely get noticed, usually due to them being played smaller or quieter than the moments that permeate the pop culture sphere, so here goes.
The absolute failure of Don Jonston’s life looms over the whole film, and for most of the film Murray plays him as a man who is patiently waiting for an epiphany, but unsure what this epiphany is supposed to feel like. The themes of having loved and lost are readily apparant from the opening scenes; in fact, they’re presented almost so on-the-nose that one can’t help but wonder if Jaramusch was putting this aspect of the film out there so plainly to get it out of the way, as if to say, “Yes, he’s an aging playboy who can’t create a stable relationship, has never wanted to. You know the type, I know the type, let’s move on, shall we?”
Nothing about Murray’s conversation with his most recent ex-girlfriend shows him as a man who cares about the ups and downs of a relationship; he says the words he’s expected to say (“Don’t go,” “What would make you happy?,” etc.), but he doesn’t mean any of it. This is just the foregone and natural conclusion to any relationship he enters into: eventually, they’re going to leave, and they’re going to hate him, though he will purport not to know why. When we first see him, he’s sitting patiently on his couch while she packs her things; when she goes to leave he gets up and crosses to her almost like a reluctant actor doing his fiftieth performance of a crappy play. The lines are exchanged and she makes her exit, and he goes right back to the couch and waits for his next cue. The sad part is he’s starting to realize that he’s getting to the point where there might not be a next cue; he might have just had his last curtain call and nothing to show for it. He doesn’t even have fond memories anymore, just a collection of sad looks as they walk out the door.
Eventually the film’s plot kicks in and off he goes, on the wild goose chase of finding who possibly mothered a child he’s not sure actually exists. he begins to look back on the wreckage that litters his wake, and notices that all the women he’s encountered over the years, from lovers to passing flirtations, all seem to look at him with the same eyes. Those eyes that recognize what he could have offered, for them and for himself, but he was much more content at having just enough to make the moment enjoyable enough. The house he lives in is nice, the neighborhood he lives in is nice, but we learn throughout the film that he didn’t just do nicely for himself, he did very well. But indulgence would mean asking some part of his subconcious what it wanted, and Don Johnston has never asked himself that question, though he’s starting to.
The film and its inconclusive investigation into whether or not Murray even has a son has been criticized as being obscure or unnecessarily vague, and if that were the point of the film I’d be inclined to agree. When we get to that moment, at the very end of the film, that soul-crushing, world-changing moment, it’s all over Murray’s face (and, especially, his eyes) what the point is: the question’s been asked, and he’s finally found the answer. He knows what he wants, what he’s always wanted, but also has the lucidity and awareness to realize that he’s missed out on his chance. If he has a son, he’ll never meet him. If he could get a woman to love him, marry him, bear him a child, he’d be too old to do a good job of it.
In a smaller moment-within-this-moment, there’s probably an even better choice by Murray: he lifts his eyes up expectantly for a second, almost waiting for that music to kick in and the next scene, where he turns his life around for the better, to begin. But no music comes. No catharsis, no resolution, happy, bittersweet, or otherwise. The film is just going to let him sit in the mess he’s made, and with no one to blame but himself, all he can do is sigh and take it. With nothing left to give, the credits begin to roll, leaving behind this wreck of a man who realized too late that the only thing worse than having loved and lost is having lost without ever even knowing what you could have been loving in the first place.