We all know and love those movies which take place over the course of one single day such as The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Reservoir Dogs. Then there are movies which take place over the course of a single night; movies like George Lucas’s American Graffiti and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours.
And Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth.
Night on Earth tells five different stories in different parts of the world over the course of one frigid, winter night. The stories are complete onto themselves meaning; these are five stories of people with no apparent ties to another. The only commonality between the main characters in these stories is that they are either a taxi driver or taxi passengers. Some will develop an odd respect for each other by the end of their cab ride, some will hate each other, and one will not even survive the journey.
Night on Earth consists of five different stories in five different countries, but they all take place in the same world—the world of Jim Jarmusch.
Segment 1 – Los Angeles
The movie starts in Los Angeles where we meet young cab driver Corky (Winona Ryder) driving a 1981 Chevrolet Caprice Classic Wagon, who picks up movie casting director Victoria Snelling (Gena Rowlands) at Los Angeles International Airport. Victoria takes Corky up on her offer to drive her to Beverly Hills where she is to meet some movie bigwigs who are at a loss in casting a current project. Victoria is taken aback by the foul-mouthed (“fuckin-A” is Corky’s go-to response to most everything), gum-chomping, barely five-foot driver (who uses two LA directory phone books to sit on in order to see above the wheel).
Throughout their drive, Victoria senses something in Corky with her “I yam what I yam” attitude toward who she is and where she’s at in life. When Corky drops Victoria off in front of a very 90210-ish fancy home, the casting director asks her if she’d be interested in becoming a movie star. Corky explains that’s not for her and that her plan of becoming a mechanic is all that matters. Victoria is astounded that the young cab driver is more excited over her $20 tip rather than acting in movies.
True to her word, Corky is who she is and she won’t change for anything. Corky drives away while Victoria drags her alligator skin luggage inside the fancy home to try to find the right girl to be in her movie. Even though she might have just driven off to pursue her dream of becoming a mechanic.
Segment 2 – New York
The dreams of the main character in segment 2 of Night on Earth are much simpler than those in the previous story. A tired and freezing New Yorker named YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito) just wants to catch a cab in Manhattan so he can get home—to Brooklyn. This dream, while simple, sure isn’t going to be easy. After several failed attempts, an old clunker of a 1983 Ford LTD Crown Victoria, sputters up beside YoYo with an unusual driver —a newly transplanted German immigrant named Helmut Grokenberger. Helmut is not the most capable of drivers and even if he was, he has no idea where he’s even driving to. New York streets are as strange to him as the streets of Germany would be to YoYo who is as New York as New York gets.
There’s only one solution: YoYo becomes the driver, and Helmut becomes the passenger. YoYo is delighted by Helmut, especially when the older man explains that back home, he performed in the circus. This is going to be a memorable ride for the two of them. And for Helmut, it becomes even more memorable. After driving across the Brooklyn Bridge and back on home turf, YoYo spots his sister-in-law Angela (a hilarious Rosie Perez) out walking by herself. YoYo stops the car and literally picks up Angela (by force) and drops her into the cab. Angela screams, curses at and hits YoYo until he’s able to drive off. Helmut is captivated by the fiery spirit of this tiny, curly-haired spit-fire. YoYo is over it though. He’s more than used to it.
When YoYo reaches his home, Helmut returns to the driver’s seat, but unlike Corky, Helmut has no idea where he’s going—geographically or life-wise. Helmut drives away trying to find the right direction.
Segment 3 – Paris
Now Night on Earth leaves the U.S.
In Paris, a young unnamed cab driver (Jarmusch favorite Isaach De Bankolé) is driving around two rowdy, intoxicated African diplomats who give the driver a hard time over his birth home on the Ivory Coast. After some taunts too many, the driver orders the diplomats out—before they’ve had a chance to pay the fare. The driver is just looking for a passenger who won’t give him a hard time, which he believes to be a young blind woman looking for a car.
The woman (Béatrice Dalle, Betty Blue), also nameless, is not going to let the driver enjoy this ride in peace either as she points out that he’s taking a wrong detour to her destination. The driver is transfixed by his passenger however and begins asking her what living blind is like. She’s not going to let this driver play with her as a source to satisfy his curiosity, however. She tells him she does all sorts of ordinary things such as dance to music, go to movies and make love. The driver doesn’t understand how those things can be enjoyable if she can’t see. She’s not going to make him understand if that’s the case. To her, he’s the blind one. When the woman is dropped off, the driver watches as she makes her way along a canal before he heads off—into another car he claims he didn’t see. It seems that the cabbie is the blind one in the situation. The two drivers argue while the blind woman, hearing the commotion, smiles.
Segment 4 – Rome
Rome during the middle of the night is a very quiet place as the streets tend to be completely empty. That is not this case however, as Night on Earth’s fourth segment features a speedy, motor-mouthed cab driver named Gino (Roberto Benigni). Gino will speak anytime, anywhere, even while driving his 1976 Fiat 128 alone. Zipping through the narrow side streets of Rome in his tiny car, Gino is almost trying to keep up the pace with his tongue which, while delivering a torrent of words, never stops making “zzzzip” noises. Gino is as familiar with his city as YoYo is of his and unlike the unnamed driver in the Paris segment, Gino could drive around blind and still arrive where he intended.
Gino’s only passenger is a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who really has no idea what to make of the talkative Gino (who likes to wear dark sunglasses at night for some reason). Gino feels this is a good time for confession (usually it’s the other way around) to his passenger and then proceeds to regale the poor unwell, elder priest with tales of his sexual history from a young boy until the present. These incidents include starting out by experimenting with large, ripe pumpkins, then a sheep, and the kicker—a descriptive ordeal where Gino confesses to having an affair with his sister-in-law. The more Gino delves into his escapades, the sicker the old priest becomes until the man’s heart gives out. Gino has shocked the priest to death.
Gino drops the dead priest off a bench outside a cathedral and leaves him with a gift—his sunglasses before driving off before daylight. Gino doesn’t even mind that he lost a fare or his glasses. The priest was a captive audience, and Gino has made his confession. Unto another night.
Segment 5 – Helsinki
Segment five is Night on Earth’s most solemn episode as the tragic figure in this story is cab driver, Mika (in a touching performance by late Finnish actor Matti Pellonpää). Mika, driving a 1973 Volvo 144 spends the hour between night and daylight riding in circles around an empty building parking lot, when he gets a call to pick up three drunks in front of a tavern which closed for the night (or morning).
The three men (Kari Väänänen, Sakari Kuosmanen, and Tomi Salmela) are barely even able to stand, yet they manage to pile into Mika’s cab. Mika asks why one of them is dead asleep and the other two explain that their companion lost his job, car, wife, and daughter the previous day. Mika counters that things can be worse which stuns his awake passengers. Mika then recounts a harrowing story involving his wife and their newborn baby that by story’s end, has the men in tears which they cannot stop. When the men reach their destination, they offer Mika their sincerest goodbyes and head up the narrow, snow-covered road to their homes where the asleep passenger finally comes to and manages to pay the fare before he literally, stumbles out the door onto the cold ground. It is now daylight and Mika drives off while the man sits alone on the road watching the world come alive around him. He seems in no hurry to head inside as we recall there being nobody home now to greet him. Night has ended and it’s a new day. Twelve hours between five stories featuring characters who know that when the night approaches, they have to do it all again.
Jarmusch has said he chose these particular locations as it would offer him the chance to work with certain actors he admired. At the time (early ’91) the biggest name star to appear in this film would have been Winona Ryder who obviously worked for very little money to work with the director as well. Other stars such as Rowlands and Perez also do some wonderful work with their roles even though their screen-time is not substantial. Perez especially is such a comic force on-screen you want to see her pop up in another segment just for the fun of it (what I wouldn’t give to see a movie based on YoYo’s and Angele’s home life).
Taxis and the same night aren’t the only common factor connecting the stories in Night on Earth; the music by Jarmusch regular and favorite Tom Waits is terrific. Waits starts the movie off with a rousing version of “Good Old World” and ends it with a tender waltz version of the same song which includes some of my favorite song lyrics ever:
“I remember when she held my hand, we walked home alone in the rain. How pretty her mouth, how soft her hair. Nothing would ever be the same.”
Night on Earth is a movie about strangers, and by the end of it, most of them remain strangers. Unlike The Breakfast Club, there are no bonds between these characters made for life or even a night. Once the ride is over everybody goes on their way and the drivers ride around until they find their next passengers—which of course is another five stories. It’s a little bit of a shame Jarmusch never made a follow-up some years later with another set of actors, telling another five stories of cab drivers in other parts of the world. Imagine a Chicago segment, one in Seattle, one in Newfoundland, Canada, one in Tokyo or one in India. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe the passengers in Night on Earth could find themselves in another need of a cab in some other part of the globe and have another story to tell?
Except for the dead priest in the Rome segment. I hope he wasn’t left out on that bench very long before somebody found him.