Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, from 1991, uses the story of five cab rides in five different cities to form a mosaic.
Jarmusch loves characters who commit to their own offbeat philosophies and ambitions, so we get Winona Ryder’s gum-chewing Corky, an LA cab driver (she has to sit on a phone book so she can see) who shrugs off an offer of potential stardom that could conflict with her dream of becoming a mechanic. The story of Corky and her fare, high-powered casting director Victoria (Geena Davis), is laid-back and casually contemplative, with an ambling, naturalistic look at a relationship that feels real, even if it’s destined to end when the car stops. Ryder is a little clumsy in the role, but Davis radiates intelligence and intrigue and wryness in a way that makes the segment sell everything it needs to.
That’s our opening section, and it’s a good one, giving us a sample of most of what the film has to offer: colorful characters, microcosmic culture clashes, humor, and a kind of wistful thoughtfulness. Other segments may play up the comedy or introduce us to characters so brazenly colorful you may want to put your eyes out (hello, Roberto Benigni’s charmless, incessantly chattering cabbie), but it’s all on the same spectrum. The weakest story is the one in Paris, with an abrasive blind woman (Béatrice Dalle) and a cab driver from the Ivory Coast (Isaach De Bankolé), which isn’t enlivened by the same sense of affection as the other segments, but even that has its good points.
What the movie doesn’t do is prepare you for the final story, set in Helsinki and featuring stoic driver Mika (Matti Pellonpää), who has–he gradually reveals–recently suffered a devastating loss. Pellonpää keeps his performance simple and restrained, and the scene works incredibly well. But we don’t end with him, because his tale was a kind of interruption in the film’s easy ebb and flow. Mika can’t yet move on, so life flows around him. We end with his drunken fare sitting on a snowy sidewalk, and although it’s cold and damp and his life has recently taken a turn for the worse, we feel that the current will sweep him up again. Sooner or later, we all pass into Jarmusch’s purview, and there’s something reassuring about that.
Night on Earth is streaming on HBO and the Criterion Channel.
Book Club Discussion post on The Girl from Rawblood will go up on Friday!