Film Reflection: Down By Law (1986)- Jarmusch’s Surreal Contemplative Film Focusing on Character Personalities and Visual Ambiance

It’s pretty safe to say that by his third film Jim Jarmusch certainly developed a style, which seemed to follow realistic and imperfect characters through familiar environments that end up being filmed in a dreamlike state. Unlike his first two films Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise, which were set in Manhattan, Jarmusch focuses his third film Down By Law in the grimy, pseudo-exotic bayous of Louisiana. This change in setting was definitely an artistic choice, considering Jarmusch wrote the script before even scouting locations, and captures the atmosphere beautifully with Robert Muller’s black and white cinematography. As the film opens up it is no secret that we are being emerged into New Orleans as the definitive architecture, swamps, and worn down streets are presented to us in a couple of surreal and slow paced series of moving shots. Those who have never cared for the dream take on films probably won’t ever care for Jim Jarmusch or Down By Law, which is another film in Jarmusch’s repertoire as an unconventional film that focuses more on the state of characters and the atmosphere of the settings rather than a straight basic narrative. The gritty settings and the even rougher characters, which are well cast with unconventional actors, are juxtaposed with the clear black and white cinematography creating a nightmare for its characters allowing the surreal to compliment the grunge that fills every shot.

Down By Law focuses deeply on two characters named Zack and Jack and the intentional rhyming scheme to their names implies they are opposites or at least so similar that they are destined to clash against their own personalities. We’re introduced to Zack, a radio disc jokey who goes by the “on air” pseudonym Lee “Baby” Sims, who doesn’t have a care in the world, except for his expensive shoes, even when he’s being barraged with obscenities and minor punches from an enraged girlfriend. Zack is played by an appropriately cast Tom Waits who uses his own suave hipster-esque personality established from his own music career to embody this character. John Lurie, a Jarmusch regular, plays Jack the amateurish pimp who seems he has more heart than brains when it comes to his job. Lurie is another known musician at this point and dresses as if he were a regular in a 40s noir film, which is appropriate considering that Down By Law is categorized by the filmmaker himself as a “neo-Beat noir” comedy. All of the main characters in the film really don’t need any back stories because their posture, facial expressions, and demeanor are all based on established personality allowing us to know who they are without the rigorous dialogue to explain them. This also applies to Roberto Benigni who was unknown to American audiences at the time but was an extremely well known comedian in Italy. Benigni really exercises a free form of comedy that reflects his own personality, reciting American idioms and making his inability of using the English language as a comedic tool. These three characters make a trinity of personalities, where Benigni’s Roberto acts as the link between Zack and Jack balancing the film in its entirety.

Zack and Jack are both framed for their crimes and this is known because we see the side dealings and betrayal that end up putting them in jail. While their personalities can be a tad alienating because they seem too distant for the audience to relate to, the very fact that they don’t deserve to be in prison helps us sympathize and understand their inevitable frustration. This isn’t the case with Roberto, who even openly confesses his guilt of murdering another human being, but our sympathies are created due to his childlike innocence as though he doesn’t truly understand what is going on around him. Roberto eventually leads Jack and Zack out of prison in an escape that isn’t very unnerving as much as it is symbolic to Roberto’s link to their characters. The whole film feels as though it’s an experiment within and outside of the film putting two well known and obvious differing personalities together in a confined space and sees how the chemistry works. For the most part Down By Law is engaging, especially in its more comedic elements, because the characters seem real instead of feeling scripted. It really isn’t meant to be one of those entertainment films that people watch again and again for everything from the acting, the direction, the lighting, the cinematography, and the editing reinforces the surreal atmosphere of the film. If it is supposed to be a dream than it isn’t a very uplifting one and has something to say about the grittiness of life. This is a poem rather than a narrative with the characters resembling an example of verses while the cinematography creates a type of prose.

Robert Muller’s ability to make the visuals engaging in Down By Law is the most elegant and gripping part about the entire film. Without the low angles, the crisp atmosphere, the close ups, or the steady surreal tracking shots, nothing in the film would make sense. It allows the film to transcend your average understanding of movies by willfully denying the basics and while some people find this pretentious, and at times Jarmusch is indeed that, Down By Law isn’t one of those preachy art house films. It combines the elements of mood, setting, character personality and reinforces this through image and sound. The music was delicately chosen and definitely reminds us of our lead characters being tunefully suggestive yet mildly understated. Jarmusch does have the ability to create an ambient film relying on how all of the elements combine rather than how each element accentuates the story. Not many filmmakers can make this work and isn’t a recommended way of creating cinema, but if it’s done well than it can be a form of delivery that can have many interpretations. Down By Law is certainly one of his successes in form, character, and atmosphere.

Jim Jarmusch isn’t a conventional filmmaker so anyone who looks for typical modern day cinema will never venture out to see one of his off beat films. However, those looking for an expose on character, a gripping visual style, and an experimental poetic narrative just might appreciate Down By Law and it’s intriguing paradox of clear picture and gritty sets. Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, and John Lurie all embody their personalities with engaging results and is complimented by Robert Muller’s clear black and white visuals. It is clearly a poetic film but doesn’t intend on preaching any clear message, because it is a story of personalities in a vague familiar Louisiana only in setting and not in atmosphere. As the last shot of the crossroads hits black it certainly is a deep image that will have anyone willing to experience the film contemplating what it means to them, making Down By Law an interesting and surreal film experience.

4 Responses to “Film Reflection: Down By Law (1986)- Jarmusch’s Surreal Contemplative Film Focusing on Character Personalities and Visual Ambiance”
  1. June says:

    deeper implication were presented well

  2. Olivier says:

    It stuck with me all these years (20+…) seeing Beasts of the Southern Wilds brought it up in conversation as well as Athafalaya houseboat ( documentary)….haunting settings….

  3. BornOnSaturday says:

    Reblogged this on bornonsaturday.

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  1. […] Photos Courtesy of: Generation Film! […]

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