Jim Jarmusch – Down By Law (1986)


The esteemed Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote something interesting about Jim Jarmusch in an article discussing the director's singularity within the American film landscape: "It’s an enduring and endearing paradox of Jim Jarmusch’s art as a writer-director that even though it may initially come across as a triumph of style over content, it arguably turns out to be a victory of content over style. The humanism of this mannerist winds up counting for more than all his stylistic tics, thus implying that his manner may simply be the shortest distance between two points." In Rosenbaum's opinion, especially the early films - Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law - "(…) often [took] a backseat to the behavioral comedy."

It's an interesting observation for me personally, being that I found quite a bit of content in Stranger Than Paradise. In my mind, even though every shot was carefully conceived and staged, style took a backseat to the message in that film. By contrast, I found the content of Down By Law to be much more of the "behavioral comedy" variety and the style to be often admirable but ultimately uneven. It was a strange viewing experience seeing this film for the first time again after years. When I was just starting getting interested in "independent" film as a teenager, Down By Law was one of the first films that presented me with depths I never imagined cinema to have. Tarantino's Pulp Fiction first made me realize that there was more to film than Mission: Impossible and Dangerous Minds. But Down By Law opened the door for me to a cinema where I could linger instead of race through.

Down By Law also made me realize that content doesn't necessarily matter much in the context of film. What initially drew me in was the strange off-kilter atmosphere of the flick and the great performances by Benigni, Wates and Lurie. It also offset a long phase in which I was obsessed with virtually plotless movies, films I couldn't discern the meaning of, and obscure directors none of my friends had ever heard of. It is ironic to me that now, after years of watching a lot of movies, I find myself more impressed with the content in Down By Law than the style.

I have always found Jarmusch's minimalistic style fascinating because it doesn't advertise it's complexity. In Down By Law, it was the lighting of the shots that impressed me the most, the play with light and shadow, Jarmusch's uncanny mastery of the black-and-white format. But if one doesn't pay much attention to it, the director will never show it off. It is for us to discover the director's work, not for him to force-feed it to us. The same is true for the film's content. There are issues of male/female relationships, broken masculinity and cross-cultural communication but what convinced me the most on an emotional level was the way Jarmusch found warmth and hope for the characters even in the most dire circumstances.

A theme that he would develop further in Night On Earth is that confronted with someone's humanity, it is a lot harder for us to dismiss or reject them. Zach and Jack are two wannabe big shot alpha males, belittled by their girlfriends, losers by all accounts, but masters of the world in their own mind. Playing cards together in a jail cell, escaping prison, eating an unseasoned rabbit over a fire, and witnessing the burgeoning love of two indecipherable people inevitably made them see something in each other. It's not just the typical hollywoodian going-through-the-adventure-brought-them-closer-together trope Jarmusch is interested in here, it's the idea that recognizing who someone is on a human level most often makes one realize something about oneself. At the end of the film, Jack and Zach, although wandering off in opposite directions, finally embark on a life journey that is more their own than the badass posturing they were engaging in at the beginning of the film.

The fact that shadows and contrasted white/black compositions make up the bulk of Jarmusch’s frames in this film almost has me tempted to say that the characters’ journeys could be seen as starting in the dark and possibly going towards some form of enlightenment at the end of the film. At the very least, they are closer to embrace their own humanity when they head out into the woods. In reality, I had more of an impression that Down By Law was a sort of formal and contentual experiment. For some reason, Stranger Than Paradise seems to me like a more accomplished offering, even though Down By Law exhibits more signs of the director’s early maturity.

The jail sequence, as well-crafted it is from a story standpoint, poses the biggest stylistic problems for me. The flatness of the decor and the strange lack of inspired frames result in something that is not particularly pretty to look at, which is strange because everything that comes before and after is beautifully photographed. Jarmusch’s methodical medium-shot/reverse-medium-shot set-ups force him to distill his pictorial impulses until he gets to something simple but refined. That’s why his interior scenes always strike me as more successful visually than his exteriors. In Down By Law, large chunks of the action take place outside. I wouldn’t say that it’s the reason why he plays around a lot with different light sources (street lights, car lights, moonlight, fire, etc.) but there is a tangible experimental approach to these shots. They are less systematically staged, less Spartan in their decors. The jail scenes, by contrast, have little texture.

It is also worth noticing that Down By Law is much more plot-driven than Stranger Than Paradise and Night on Earth. If Stranger dispensed with plot instead focusing on meaningful character moments and Night only showed us the moments between plot points and character moments, Down By Law attempts to explore how plot can change characters. Both Jack and Zach are wrongfully jailed and we see both the set-up and the arrest. They are pure story moments, something rather unusual for Jarmusch until then. But following these plot twists, we get a long stretch of the characters sitting around, fighting, screaming (for ice cream!) and trying to come to terms with themselves. Another burst of plot advancement is the escape from jail that propels the characters into a new state of mind that is resolved when Benigni's character finds love and gives Zach and Jack hope for a better tomorrow. Seen in that light, Down By Law is a film about consequences. Not situational consequences, but mental ones.


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