A movie challenge this month faces me off, once again, against Jim Jarmusch, the American indie art film director whose work I find semi-inscrutable. This is the third Jarmusch movie to come my way in a Challenge in as many years — here I reviewed Mystery Train, and here Only Lovers Left Alive — and my appreciation for his craft may have improved slightly, with no correlating appreciation for his subject matter. He's a filmmaker whose movies feature slivers of promise that are deliberately kept slim, opaque and just out-of-reach.
Down By Law stars John Lurie and Tom Waits as New Orleans losers who wind up as prison cellmates after each is convicted of crimes for which they weren't responsible. They're soon joined by a third cellmate (Roberto Benigni) who lacks any pretense of roughness while also fully admitting his guilt for murder. They bond and... well, a few things happen in Down By Law, but, this being a Jim Jarmusch movie, very little "happens" overall. If the first half-hour seems uneventful — despite packing in 90% of the plot — just wait until Lurie, Waits and Benigni tramp around the Louisiana swamp for 20 minutes with no idea where they are or where they are going. Jarmusch is, by and large, a director of vibes rather than actions, and his particular deadpan hipster vibe is as solidly realized here as it's ever been.
I don't object to movies that take their time, or movies that blanket over their ideas with a still and quiet aesthetic. With Jarmusch, however, I can never quite make out what interests him in his own movies, other than maybe toying with the idea of interest itself. He tosses out slivers of plot within a dubious design that disassembles at the earliest opportunity, and his tone is droll without ever (or mostly ever) actually being funny. Sometimes it seems like his movies might be allegories, but it's not clear for what, or an existential comment on life, but the comment itself is more of a question, and the question itself has no content. Poking around for meaning in Down By Law uncovers a few intriguing parallels and contradictions — the most innocent of the three men is also the most guilty; freedom and jail are both eerily prison-like; the spectre of choice hangs over everyone but seems to matter little in terms of outcome. These are potentially fruitful ideas, but are rolled out too briefly without any care or exploration. If Jarmusch could just push his ideas or his style a bit further — like Lurie did in his tonally similar and yet terrific TV series Fishing With John, which featured Waits and Jarmusch as guests — he might be onto something, but maybe that level of effort would disrupt Jarmusch's too-cool facade. Maybe Jarmusch is working on an even higher level or irony, one that sees those little of recycled bits of old Hollywood genre pictures — the set-ups, the bonding, the escape — as shallow, diverting concepts just as likely to lead to meaning as spending days traipsing through the wilderness of the soul is likely to lead to revelation: not at all. Maybe I don't care much for Jarmusch because, fundamentally, I'm neither a futilitarian nor a nihilist.
On the other hand, Down By Law looks amazing. There's no shortage of care put into the way Jarmusch frames and shoots his subjects, and cinematographer Robby Müller — a frequent collaborator with Wim Wenders — makes the most of how his black and white film stock captures the disheveled nature of New Orleans, the confined monotony of prison, or the aimless maze of the swamp. While all of Jarmusch's movies leave a lingering visual imprint, Down By Law might be my favorite yet in that regard, I just wish it matched its aesthetic beauty with something else worth thinking about.