Directing Viewing: Jarmusch Hits it Big, “Down By Law”

In this third installment of Directed Viewing, we’re going to be taking a look at more of the filmography of Jim Jarmusch. If you’d like to get caught up, parts one and two can be found by clicking the links. Once again, a bit of context before we leap into the next movie.

Stranger than Paradise had an impact that was far grander than the modest scope of the film itself. It won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, also winning Special Jury Prize at Sundance and being awarded the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Picture in 1985. The reality was, Jarmusch had gone from obscurity to indie darling in one movie, a leap that was well deserved given the quality the film in question.

Moreso than that, the movie became a touchstone of modern indie cinema, setting the stage of 80s films as a proving ground for directors with little budget but an eye for style and cinematic convention. The 90s indie scene exploded because of Pulp Fiction, but that movie and many others like it might not have existed if not for the groundwork laid by Jarmusch in 1984.

It’s interesting then that two years later Jarmusch answered not with another giant leap in filmmaking, but something closer to a derivation off of the groundwork laid in Stranger than Paradise. What followed wasn’t going to win any awards or set new benchmarks in cinema, but instead served as a refinement of the raw talent previously on display.

Down By Law (1986)

Zack (Tom Waits) is a disk jockey who we meet in the middle of getting dumped by his grilfriend. Jack (John Lurie) is a pimp being chided by one of his women. Both men are carefully styled depictions of cool, Zack a loner hipster type common in Jarmusch’s prior work and Jack a swaggering suit looking like he stepped out of a lesser, brutish film noir. Both men are down on their luck, the kind of sad sack self-inflicted suffering that is so common in his first three films it might as well be Jarmusch hallmark.

Zack ends up spending the last of his money on a pair of fancy shoes before being offered a $1000 to steal a car and drive it across town by a local thug. Jack is told by an associate about a young girl who wants to get into the business and is looking for a good pimp. Both men indulge in the temptation set before them, and both men end up being set up and caught by the cops. Which is how the two end up sharing a cell in a Louisiana jail.

This is the setup of Down By Law, but it certainly takes a while to get to its premise. We see both men alone, living lives that could best be described as aimless. By the time we end up with the two of them in the prison cell, we know enough about these men to know that put in a confined space they’ll go together like oil and water. And they do, preening and posturing as one tries to out-cool the other. The end up at a machismo stalemate, breaking out into outright violence when neither man can assert dominance.

That’s when a third man, Bob, is tossed in the cell with them. Bob is played by Roberto Benigni as not much more than a version of what would become his persona in the West in the 90s, a bumbling Italian with a dim grasp of the English language and a sense of wonder and joy for the world that threatens to overwhelm Zack and Jack’s cynicism put together.

Both men, who have spent most of their time arguing over who was the most wronged and innocent before being tossed in jail, are startled to find that Bob freely admits to being in jail for manslaughter after defending himself during a violent poker game. His honesty feels like lunacy in this world of pretense and affectation. It’s enough to get down the guard’s of both men, and as time passes they grow into something resembling three friends, Bob the linchpin holding these two personalities together through little more than guileless charm and a wit that transcends his language barriers.

Bob also has another trick up his sleeve: he knows a way out

Our hapless heroes.

of the prison, some grand scheme for escape that nobody has found. He offers this up to his cellmates, and the three of them hatch their plan to escape. But this isn’t a heist film, and in a cut we go from them walking out to the exercise yard to them fleeing the tunnels of a sewer, emerging into the wilderness to the baying of bloodhounds. This is a jailbreak movie in the same way Reservoir Dogs would be a heist film, a movie about these characters in a genre situation that has little regard for the plot crux that traditionally overwhelms these types of stories.

What surprised me most about Down By Law is after two movies that were so firmly holding the audience away at arm’s length that Jarmusch would make such a warm comedy. Because, at its heart, the film is funny. From the near slapstick level of Bob’s verbal difficulties to his inability to swim across a river during their escape, it has traditional gags along with human touches that make the film glow with a sweetness that was genuinely surprising. For example, when in jail, Bob learns the word for ‘scream’ by learning the jingle “I scream you scream we all scream for ice cream” and is so amused by it that all three men turn it into a chant that eventually overtakes the entire block of the prison. It’s a small moment, but the sense of fun and of camaraderie flies directly in the face of the isolation and aggression of the first third of the film.

Once they escape into the woods, we find the existential nihilism that pervaded the opening creeping back in. The excitement of escape gone, the three men find themselves in the middle of the swamp evading the police. Bob proves invaluable as he is capable of catching food. The two men, turning swiftly on one another, stay more out of necessity than any sense of obligation. The end up finding an abandoned bayou shack to stay in, a room no bigger than their cell, falling right back into the routine of when they were in prison. After all the risk to escape, they’ve managed to get nowhere at all.

Even upon escaping prison, the men find themselves as trapped as before.

They finally stumble across civilization, if you can call it that, by coming across a run down house in the forest. This is the home of Nicoletta (Nicoletta Braschi), an Italian woman that Bob instantly falls in love with. The three men stay for some time, before Zack and Jack get the wanderlust again. Unfortunately, the key to their group has other plans, and the two men set off in opposite directions, leaving Bob to his swampy paradise. It’s a sweet ending, of friendships ending naturally and maybe some lessons learned along the way, and flies in the face of all of Jarmusch’s previous work.

Outside of the thematic differences, there’s obviously a strong sense of style. This is the first pairing of Jarmusch and cinematographer Robby Muller, who shoots in black and white but with an eye for clarity and shape that takes the film miles away from the urban wasteland of the first two films of this project. Part of it is the setting, but a large part of it is the way it’s shot, a timeless quality that has one foot in noir and one foot in American folk tale. It gives it a depression-era quality, especially in the latter half, evoking such disparate styles of film as The Third Man or O Brother Where Art Thou?

But then, that’s always been Jarmusch’s strong point. He’s a pastiche director, mashing up the variety of media that he had been exposed to into something new, feeling at turns timeless and others bleeding edge modern (even today his work has a surprising vitality). That dichotomy reminds me at least of Goddard, and indeed some of his scenes seem to evoke Goddard’s work. The car trip in Stranger Than Paradise feels like a verite riff on the chaotic car trips of Breathless, while there’s a dance scene towards the end of Down By Law that reminds me of a similar scene in Vivre Sa Vie.

Special note should be given to the incredible cinematography. It turns every outdoor scene into a postcard for New Orleans and Louisiana, beautiful and imposing at the same time.

But while Goddard’s films contain scenes of levity as a means to humanize characters before crushing them under their own problems and faults, usually to a dark end, Jarmusch makes them the bright spots in lives that are otherwise inert with their own mundanity. Jarmusch’s truth, it’s coming to seem, isn’t so much in telling stories but in presenting people as dull as they truly are. A little ridiculous, a little egotistical, but mostly plain and average with bright spots of brilliance that often go completely unrecognized by the people having them.

It’s demanding cinema, taxing the patience of a viewer more attuned to the pace of more mainstream cinema, but for work that ‘dares to be boring’ it has its own unique, intensely relatable rewards.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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