Quick-Thoughts: Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (1986)

Jim Jarmusch Marathon Part III of VII

“We are a good egg, my friends.”

Buddy movies where the relationships are fleeting just hit differently, and Jarmusch’s technique to make those bonds that happen within them last more extensively than the usual movie would continue to only make this even more of a fact given how it crushes you to know that they ended so quickly despite their worthwhile content. You could depict a decade-long timeframe of connection by stating it as so, and yet it could come off as inconceivable so long as there isn’t proof that that time was felt by the characters as they establish exclusive patterns and develop their value between one another. A dozen genuine moments could be enough for us to buy an on-screen friendship considering those moments only then multiply in our mind when we think retrospectively; give them a girthy near two-hours to play out with a lack of typical focus on the plot and you have yourselves something that convinces us further to believe. 

The diversity of style is evidently denser here than it was in his previous feature-length, which felt more akin to a constraint Cassavetes authenticity in its presentation. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, because the new technical choices in Down by Law are usually always immersive ones: trucking the neighborhood to Tom Waits, the classy noir vibes of the first act, deep contrasted black-and-white cinematography, etc. Sooner than later though, it does begin to settle down into Jarmusch’s trademark dialogue-and-feasible-silence-spaced schtick, but with a wider plate of personality humor to it where the deviating American identities are played more for laughs than critique. Hence, the film doesn’t appear as intentionally meaningful and constantly tragic as say Stranger Than Paradise (1984), but it does leave a deserved gut-punch at the end just like it, with a more open-ended sense of wonder as to what we just witnessed and what it could personally entail to us. In other words, it’s a smart way of shaking up Jarmusch’s hallmarks.

Verdict: A-

Jim Jarmusch Ranked

“Down by Law” is now available to stream on The Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

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