Five uneven vignettes shot in different cities centering on conversations between cab drivers and passengers—this is Jarmusch in easy-going mode as he captures the pathos of human connection.
Dir. Jim Jarmusch
1991 | USA | Comedy/Drama | 128 mins | 1.78:1 | English, French, Italian & Finnish
M18 (passed clean) for violence, language, and some drug use
Cast: Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Roberto Benigni
Plot: An anthology of five different cab drivers in five American and European cities and their remarkable fares on the same eventful night.
International Sales: The Match Factory
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray)
It is kind of serendipitous that Jim Jarmusch’s fifth feature would be made up of five ‘short films’ that were shot on location in five different cities. Utilising the portmanteau form, he brings us on a cinematic journey of sights (cursory cutaway shots have never felt more integral) and sounds (mostly conversational) as we follow cab drivers and their passengers in the dead of night:
A stressed-out casting agent (Gena Rowlands) is picked up from the airport by a chain-smoking, tomboyish young lady (Winona Ryder) in Los Angeles; a black man flags for a cab driven by an East German immigrant in unforgiving New York; a driver from Ivory Coast picks up a blind French lady in Paris as assumptions about each other reach a boil; an eccentric Italian (Roberto Benigni) picks up an old priest whose ride around Rome becomes an awkward confession of sexual sins; lastly, in Helsinki, a downbeat Finnish man picks up three drunk passengers who would unexpectedly gain new perspectives in life.
“Look, lady, I like the movies and all and I see you’re being serious, you know, but, that’s not a real life for me, you know.”
As disparate the settings, conversations, and cars—a Chevrolet, Ford, Peugeot, Fiat and Volvo—are, Jarmusch ties everything together in a seemingly improvisational style that reflects the transient nature of taxi conversations, where assumptions about people are most pointedly challenged.
Although Night on Earth is considered one of the director’s less major works, its easy-going nature can be charming to viewers who enjoy storytelling in digestible, self-contained vignettes.
Jarmusch also captures the pathos of human connection in a way that only strangers stuck together in a cabin can find. There’s laughter, embarrassment, frustration and joy, yet when each trip ends, there is also a sense of melancholy—passengers alight, feeling tired but hopefully also wiser; drivers move on, hoping for one more meaningful ride before dawn breaks.
Because the tone of each segment is different, one might find Night on Earth uneven and inconsistent. Some segments are more hilarious like the Rome (you can never go wrong with Benigni) and New York ones, while the other three are more contemplative. I’m sure you will have a favourite—mine’s the Los Angeles one. How I wish my Grab rides in Singapore are just as exciting…
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