Down by Jarmusch: thoughts on Down by Law and the films of Jim Jarmusch as the BFI celebrates his career

A stranger in paradise: Jim Jarmusch has been making films his way for thirty years

A stranger in paradise: Jim Jarmusch has been making films his way for thirty years


Down by Law and other Jim Jarmusch films play this September at BFI Southbank as part of "Jim Jarmusch and his Friends" Season.

Down by Law

USA 1986

107 min, Digital, 12A 

RATING: ★★★★☆


This September, the BFI gives over one of its season slots to a director who seems as ready-made for a Saturday Night Live parody sketch as that other contemporary American "indie" director with an immediately recognisable style: Wes Anderson. With his origins in the New York punk and independent low/no budget filmmaking and art scene in New York in the 80s, and with a fashion sense that veers towards black on black plus aviator shades, Jim Jarmusch is a figure often mocked as pretentious. His aesthetic and entire career is often reduced to two adjectives: “hipster and “cool”. Yet Senior BFI programmer Geoff Andrew, who opened the BFI's Jarmusch season with a lecture on the director this week, puts forward a compelling case why doubters should look again at the king of cool. 

The BFI season showcases all of Jarmusch’s feature film works, from his micro-budget early effort Permanent Vacation, his breakout hit Stranger than Paradise, to his more recent play with the vampire genre Only Lovers Left Alive. The centrepiece of the season, however, is a re-release of his 1986 comedy/drama  (Jarmusch called it a “neo-Beat noir comedy”)Down by Law, which gets an extended run. What Andrew is keen to get across is his sense of the underlying thematic and formal characteristics in this filmography and the interesting ways that Jarmusch puts his ideas across on screen.

Actor Roberto Benigni in Down by Law plays a character who utters the catchphrase “It is a sad and beautiful world” throughout the film, and this Andrew sees as betraying one of the central threads running through the mercurial director’s thirty-years of work. For a director who might be seen initially by newcomers as a standoffish, cool aesthete, Andrew sees Jarmusch as actually a director who portrays and views his characters with warmth and affection, and a sense of sly fun, which makes them all very human and relatable even if many are eking out a hardscrabble existence on screen. Some of the characters at the centre of his films might indeed be "hipsterish" and interested in obscure and leftfield art forms, like vampire couple Adam and Eve in Only Lovers, whilst others are pursuing lines of work that class them as hucksters like the shady protagonists in Stranger than Paradise and the low-level hoods in Down by Law. But Jarmusch's characters often end up pushing themselves beyond their narrow world view to reach out to someone or something in an altruistic and affectionate way by the end of his films. Often they can be quite drolly funny too as they struggle with whatever dilemma - existential or more mundane - they are dealing with during the film’s run time.

Andrew argues that Jarmusch’s film’s foreground the importance of friendship, love, respect and understanding to these characters (and presumably to us wider audience); whether it is John Lurie’s character growing closer to his cousin in Stranger than Paradise, Bill Murray’s silent graveyard lament for a lost love in Broken Flowers, or the endless and unfathomably deep love of the two vampire leads in Only Lovers. Jarmusch is also willing to puncture any character’s pomposity or grandstanding, almost as if he wants to take hipsters down a notch or two; note how Eva in Only Lovers is exhausted by her lover Adam's near-absurd levels of romantic lamenting for what he sees as a more creatively rich past, and how surly, cool-cat inmates Zack and Jack in Down by Law are ultimately disarmed and rejuvenated by the almost childlike enthusiasm of cellmate Bob.

Andrew also reminds us that watching a Jarmusch film means watching the work of a true cinephile. Jarmusch has built his approach up from a broad range of materials and influences including classic arthouse cinema from the US and beyond (including Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson), stylised genre fare (Melville, Suzuki, horror and thrillers), the underground and avant garde, and of course his interests branch out into music, literature and poetry. Take for example the highly stylised sequences in Le Samouraï from Melville, echoes of which Andrew sees in Jarmusch’s ‘hitman’ films Ghost Dog and The Limits of Control, with their otherworldly, super-composed hit men main characters operating on some other level to the rest of us. They move to a different and specific rhythm in the same way that Jarmusch's films march to their own beat.

Neither Ghost Dog or The Limits of Control, or any of Jarmusch’s films really, could ever be accused of being that plot-heavy. Plot isn't really a big deal in a Jarmusch film, and “dramatic” is not something he is ever going to be accused of. His characters are often laconic and not much given to explaining what they are going to do or what they have done. Jarmusch is more interested in ideas and rhythm than exposition. Extra material is often scattered about his film that has no real easily understandable bearing on the plot, but offers viewers the chance to read something into the film in a metaphysical or thematic sense. Ghost Dog, for example, mixes narrated readings from the Bushido code from the Samurai era of Japan into the soundtrack from the get-go, and then throws in some other harder-to-explain elements too. For example, why does Forest Whitaker’s lone, Samurai-code-quoting and death-obsessed hit man Ghost Dog blow a kiss to the cemetery he walks past in that film’s opening sequence? Is he acknowledging a dead relative or just betraying a superstition? And why do none of the characters he walks past seem to notice him? Is he in fact, dead?

Forest Whitaker is the mysterious, Bushido quoting hitman in Ghost Dog

Forest Whitaker is the mysterious, Bushido quoting hitman in Ghost Dog

Ghost Dog, with it’s nods towards martial arts and hitman films, its RZA-produced hip-hop soundtrack, and its obvious debt to Melville and other stylised capers, is a great example also of what Andrew calls Jarmusch’s appealingly “cavalier” approach to genre and the way he likes to mix things up. Dead Man is another: shot in black and white like many other Jarmusch films and using some striking western-looking locations, the film seems to on the surface conform to the rules of the Western genre, but throws most of that out throughout the film’s running time. The main character of William Blake, played by Johnny Depp, is ineffectual as a gunfighter and is repeatedly mistaken by his Indian travelling partner, Nobody, for the actual poet. Characters who seem central to the plot die off suddenly and collapse in ludicrously theatrical ways, Iggy Pop shows up, one character is called “Lee” and another “Marvin”. Darker elements mix with absurdist comedy, yet there is also respect given to the Indian perspective on matters physical and spiritual. Seen from the injured William Blake's perspective, events in Dead Man eventually take on an unreal, hallucinatory feel. In fact, most of Jarmusch’s films seem to be operating on another plane of existence even if the setting is "the real world".

Formally, Jarmusch’s approach can seem minimalist, spare and controlled and he has admitted his love of filmmakers who followed such an aesthetic. Many of his films are shot in black and white, and both earlier and later films tend towards precise framing, long takes, and unfussy, unhurried camera movements. The acting tends towards the low key. But that doesn’t mean the eye is starved of material to take in as characters amble about on screen. Andrew sees Jarmusch as having a great sense of the potential of place, of architecture and the evocative nature of cities and the people in them. Only Lovers, for example, made impressive use of the faded, crumbling architecture of the now-bankrupt city of Detroit, which illuminated the vampire pair’s concern’s that they were coming to the low point in the arc of humanity’s history after a lifetime of observation. Like Ozu, a director he admires, Jarmusch balances out all the precise compositions and understated approaches with playfulness, and the concern for the humans at the heart of the stories never goes away.

Zack, Jack and Bob are down and out in Down by Law

Zack, Jack and Bob are down and out in Down by Law

This is just as true of Down by Law as his other films. In Jarmusch’s 1986 film, his follow up to Stranger than Paradise, poetry and melancholy coexist with warmth and humour and a few genres get thrown into the blender. On the surface it can be enjoyed as a hipster prison escape comedy with a mismatched character team, as three prisoners - Zack, Jack, and the bizarre, hyperactive Italian expat Bob - escape from a New Orleans prison and go on the run. But as with Robert Bresson’s prison drama Pickpocket - there is a metaphysical, poetic fable slant to things too should viewers wish to explore it. These oddballs aren't just breaking out of prison, they are breaking out of themselves. In the presence of the lighthearted, and possibly magical Bob (despite being only semi-fluent in English and seemingly a country bumpkin, he never puts a foot wrong and never fails to get whatever the trio need) Zack and Jack learn to put aside their arrogance and selfishness and bond.

Given how weird things get, especially when the trio end up in the spooky swamplands outside the prison after their unexplained breakout (Jarmusch slyly never shows the escape that Bob claims he dreamt up), it is entirely possible that this whole affair is some spiritual journey occurring in the heads of Zack and Jack. That would not make this film at all out of place with Jarmusch’s earlier work.  With some striking black and white cinematography from Robby Müller, sharp dialogue, and great chemistry between the three leads (Tom Waits stars alongside John Lurie and Benigni), viewers should enjoy this film even if they don’t want to dive as deep as Andrew suggests you can.



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Owen Van Spall

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