Chapter Three: Down By Law

Somewhere in the low-rent district of New Orleans, Zack eases himself into the bed of his already sleeping girlfriend, Laurette. She wakes in a fit of rage and explains to Zack how she has had enough of his itinerant behaviour – drifting from one mediocre job as disc jockey to another. Zack seems to take his girlfriend’s behaviour in his stride and collects his favourite pair of boots and leaves.

Meanwhile Jack, a second-rate pimp, is lambasted by Bobbie, one of his prostitutes, for never being able to realise any of his life’s plans. Jack remains silent until the telephone rings and he finds himself attracted to an offer made by his associate, Preston.

In a strange coincidence, both Zack and Jack find themselves framed for crimes they did not commit – Zack as murderer, Jack as child molester – and wind up sharing a cell in Orleans Parish Prison. At first they spar with bouts of silence but then are joined by a third prisoner, Roberto - an Italian immigrant imprisoned for killing a man in self-defence. Roberto’s idiosyncratic mannerisms and generally positive attitude breaks through the barriers between Jack and Zack, creating a sense of temporary camaraderie among the three men.

When Roberto masterminds an escape from prison, the three men make their way through the Louisiana bayou and finally stumble onto a road to freedom. They follow the road and find an Italian restaurant. Roberto immediately falls in love with Nicolletta, the owner of the restaurant, and the couple become engaged. After Jack and Zack are fed and change clothes, they take off, each veering separate directions at a fork in the road.

A Neo-Beat-Noir-Comedy

As the above synopsis indicates, like Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law is a difficult film to label in terms of genre. Jarmusch describes the film as “playful”, “a neo-beat-noir-comedy” (Stills, February 1987) – an account that seems to recall the aforementioned notion of the director’s work being poised somewhere between the styles of Hollywood’s genre-convention and Godard’s genre-experimentation. Whilst the film was shot in monochrome and shares Stranger Than Paradise’s relatively conventional three-act structure, stylistically Down By Law is a departure from Jarmusch’s previous film. Certainly, the fact of Jarmusch’s increased budget for Down By Law (reportedly $1 million as opposed to $150, 000 (Stills, February 1987)) may account for some of the stylistic differences between the two films. However, I would argue that the film utilises new stylistic devices (along with many of the same devices employed in Stranger Than Paradise) to further explore what is essentially the same principal theme – the disillusioned individual's struggle to come to terms with the dichotomy between the ideal (i.e. the Reaganite characterisation of America as the "city on the hill") and lived experience.

Although taken as a whole the structure of Down By Law’s narrative might appear to be based somewhat conventionally on the causal relations between a series of events, Jarmusch's approach seems to suggest a rupture within this convention. Particularly interesting in this respect is how, in Down By Law, what could potentially be the premise for an entire feature – Zack being framed for murder, Jack accused as child molester – is treated as mere expedience. Certainly, it has been suggested that, in relation to the trio’s prison escape (itself a premise for a whole movie) –

“Jarmusch’s elliptical narrative style allows him to omit showing how they actually manage to get from the exercise yard to the sewer-tunnel leading to the bayou, confirming the impression that his film is partly metaphorical fairy-tale.” (Andrew, 1998: 143)
Indeed this concept of the “metaphorical fairy-tale” is, in my view, of considerable stylistic relevance to Down By Law. As in Stranger Than Paradise, the characters are essentially lost, struggling to find themselves in the midst of the apparent monotony of their own existence. However, unlike in his previous film, Jarmusch represents the characters’ dislocation in Down By Law not only through dialogue and mise-en-scène but also through his employment of ellipses.

Jarmusch’s elliptical narrative style effectively disenfranchises the spectator from any classical Hollywood representations of time.[6] In a sense he is drawing attention to the process of filmmaking but also allowing the spectator to grasp a sense of characters who seem separated from the continuity of space and time which surrounds them. Indeed, in many respects it could be argued that the characters seem to live somewhere between fantasy and reality. The bland grey visuals of the prison sequence, for example, convey a sense of gritty realism. The characters' dialogue on the other hand has an almost surreal quality more reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart's one-liners than any believable dialogue.[7] In my view, Jarmusch effectively creates a world so removed from the realities of 1980s Reaganite America that the film works, in a different manner to Stranger Than Paradise, as a satire of the fractured idealism of the American Dream - an argument I shall return to later in this chapter.


Down By Law, in my view, both re-explores and develops some of the same thematic concerns examined previously in Stranger Than Paradise. Obviously then, in order to avoid any unnecessary repetition between this chapter and the last, the focus here is more on Jarmusch’s development than his reiteration. Before my detailed analysis therefore I will just briefly refer to some recurrent thematic motifs throughout Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law.

Like Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law could be seen to be essentially about American anomie. The principal characters in both films seem to share an almost aimless quality. Each day seems indistinguishable from the next as the protagonists dress the same, perform the same tasks and generally refuse to communicate about anything other than the mundane - clothes, football or TV dinners. The lives of the protagonists in both films are changed, however, upon the arrival of a foreigner (Eva in Stranger Than Paradise and Roberto in Down By Law). The foreigner could be seen to act as catalyst in both films, propelling (at least temporarily) the main characters to attempt to escape (literally in the case of Down By Law) from the humdrum of their lives. Unfortunately, however, both Willie and Eddie in Stranger Than Paradise and Jack and Zack in Down By Law find that the reality of 1980s America fails to live up to their utopian dreams of freedom. Their attempts at escape seem to lead them nowhere. However, the endings of both films are left open by Jarmusch - the suggestion self-evidently being that something has yet to be resolved.

In Control?

It has been said that “Down By Law” is street jargon for being “in control” (Kauffmann, 1994: 86). The title of Jarmusch’s film seems strangely apt then when one considers how the film seems to be essentially about two characters striving to be “in control” of their lives. From the start of the film, however, both Jack and Zack are shown to fall victim to their own decisions. Jack is set up by his associate as a child molester and is sent to jail. Zack is similarly incarcerated when the police find a dead body in the boot of the car his “friend” asks him to drive across the city in exchange for money.

Although both characters clearly share the same predicament of being imprisoned in the wrong, when they meet each other for the first time in their shared prison cell, they greet each other not with mutual empathy but with hostile silence. From the outset each man seems to have his own agenda and as a result has little time to empathise or sympathise with others. Jarmusch, in my view, foreshadows this sense of a clash of personalities in his unusual juxtapositions in the montage sequence at the beginning of the film. Before the opening credits, against a backdrop of free-jazz, the camera tracks from right to left through New Orleans’ suburbs. The music stops and the action cuts to Jack in his apartment. The music starts again and the camera tracks – this time in the opposite direction – before cutting to Zack. The metaphorical sense captured by the camera travelling in opposite directions in my view is one of two characters travelling in different directions in life – two men with their own separate agendas.

Obviously the notion of clashing agendas among America’s youth ought not to be considered peculiar to Jarmusch’s film. Indeed, examining the social context in which Down By Law was made, in my view it is interesting to consider a question raised by Allan Bloom –

“When there are no shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?” (Bloom, 1987: 27)
In Bloom’s view, today’s educated youth are notable for their acceptance of a kind of simple relativism. Each person has his or her own outlook on life and as a result any argument to the effect of the validity of this outlook is pointless. According to Bloom, relevance or reason has been outmoded by a general sense of indifference. (Bloom, 1987)

It is this notion of indifference towards the outlook of others that in my view seems to permeate Down By Law. In many ways Jarmusch could be seen to illustrate how this kind of relativism can be self-defeating. For example, without “reason” or any kind of common vision, the characters, having escaped from prison, literally find themselves going around in circles. They row their undersized boat without any sense of direction as the futility of their bickering and general disagreement is reflected by the fact that they have not made any progress in terms of finding their way out of the bayou back into civilisation. In my view, without a shared sense of reason (i.e. in the absence of what Lyotard would perhaps term a metadiscourse[8]), the characters find themselves the victims of a seemingly endless cycle – essentially a debate over whose perspective, if followed, will bring about success (i.e. their freedom and reintegration into society). Jack and Zack seem so self-absorbed, however, that neither will concede to the other’s perspective. Finally, they agree to disagree, literally choosing separate paths in life at the end of the film. They could perhaps be considered participants in an “inarticulate debate”[9] – a dispute that, at least for the time being is unlikely to yield consensus.

Resurrecting Spirits

Roberto seems to act as a kind of temporary mediator in the other characters’ lives. Before he arrives, Jack and Zack seem to simply refuse to communicate or connect on any level. Indeed, this could be seen to be highlighted in an exchange early in the film:

Jack: As far as I’m concerned you don’t exist.

Zack: You don’t exist either.

The characters’ body language following this scene is also interesting as Zack literally turns his back on Jack – apparently refusing him any opportunity to interact or interfere with his own personal agenda. Gradually the tension mounts between the characters until – somewhat inevitably – things culminate in a fight. Shortly afterwards Roberto arrives and his undeniable positivity gradually seems to charm Jack and Zack out of their essential self-centredness. In a key scene Roberto draws a window in chalk on the cell wall explaining to the others how one can either look at it or look through it. In my view this scene is indicative of a character who believes in the possibility of achievement – someone who perhaps could be seen to have bought the American Dream. Zack and Jack on the other hand seem essentially sceptical and continue to shun Roberto’s optimism – at least until their foreign cellmate masterminds a means of escape. Only then do they seem to withdraw from their self-centredness to realise the benefits of co-operation.

In interview Jarmusch has suggested that, before Roberto arrives, Jack and Zack are “basically dead” and that Roberto’s optimism serves to partially resurrect their spirits. (Rolling Stone, 1986) I would also suggest that Roberto is perhaps the most articulate of the three characters. His poor grasp of basic English grammar is balanced by the fact that he manages to convey his point simply and effectively by referring to “everything I know about America” (i.e. his small notebook of phrases). Whereas Jack and Zack indicate that they are basically inexpressive people through silence and monosyllabic utterance, Roberto is clearly rather enthusiastic about the possibility of using basic communication to unite or “bond” the three characters.

Of course Roberto temporarily realises his hopes of uniting with Jack and Zack when the trio find themselves escaping from prison. For the first time they seem to have a common goal – to obtain freedom by reaching and reintegrating back into civilisation. Nikki Stiller has pointed out that at this stage in the film the three characters realise that –

“Absolute self-reliance is inappropriate in a canoe.” (Stiller, 1987: 51)
In other words they must co-operate to succeed. Unfortunately, however, problems soon seem to re-emerge for the characters.

A Successful Life in Doubt and Ambiguity?

Although Zack, Jack and Roberto initially find themselves working in unison following their escape from prison[10], their sense of adventure and optimism is spoiled when they stumble across an old abandoned shack – the furnishings in which somewhat ironically resemble their prison cell. In a sense, it seems to forecast a return to the communicative and emotional imprisonment of the characters evident in the first half of the film. Perhaps adding credence to this point is the fact that soon Roberto loses his book of English and as a result can no longer mediate between Jack and Zack as petty disagreements over who is in charge or "in control" begin to re-emerge.[11] Although each character seems to have returned to his own agenda, nevertheless the trio begrudgingly consent to continue on together on their quest for civilisation, eventually stumbling across “Luigi’s Tin Top” – an isolated Italian diner.

It is at this moment in the film that Jarmusch’s tone seems explicitly fantastical. Not only does the diner seem to appear out of nowhere but Roberto also suddenly finds what one might refer to as his "happy Hollywood ending" when he secures a future as husband to the diner’s proprietor, Nicolletta. Although on the surface this ending could perhaps be viewed as trite, perhaps it is useful here to recall Nikki Stiller reference to Roberto’s character as being “able to abide in doubts and ambiguities”. (Stiller, 1987: 53) Indeed he could be seen to be in essence a character of hope - someone who manages to find security in a world of obvious disparity (as evidenced in Zack and Jack’s incessant bickering).[12]

Roberto's "happy Hollywood ending", however, is not achieved by all in Down By Law. In this respect I would argue that Jarmusch seems to indicate how the notion of America as a homogenised society is something of a myth.[13] Unlike Roberto, at the end of the film Jack and Zack find themselves still in search of their happy ending. For them, the American Dream still lies beyond their grasp. This dichotomy between the real and the fantastical in Down By Law could be seen to capture “Jarmusch’s doubt about the world in which he makes his films.” (Kauffmann, 1994: 88) - a doubt that in my view could be seen to be symptomatic of the era in which Down By Law was made.


#6 Here I am referring to what Bordwell et al. term the “discreet narration” characteristic of classical Hollywood cinema in which time is subtly made subordinate to causality. In other words, the spectator follows the causal thread rather than being aware of the actual role of time in the narrative. (David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, 1985: 49)

#7 Roberto's proclamation that "It's a sad and beautiful world" is perhaps the most obvious example of off-the-cuff profundity akin to dialogue from a film noir film.

#8 A metadiscourse according to Lyotard is a discourse that appeals to some grand narrative such as the emancipation of the human subject or the creation of wealth. (Lyotard, 1979: xxiii.)

#9 A term “borrowed” from Charles Taylor’s exploration of the notion of authenticity in contemporary society (Taylor, 1991).

#10 At one stage Zack and Jack come to Roberto’s aid when it becomes apparent that he cannot swim to safety away from the police dogs in his pursuit.

#11 It is perhaps worth recalling here that the futility of their arguments could be seen to be highlighted in the aforementioned scene where the characters find themselves wandering in circles in their boat.

#12 This might be seen to recall Michael Paul Gallagher’s notion of “creative postmodernity” - a type of hopeful fusion of modernity and postmodernity in which the self is less lonely and the culture finds a shared language of community. In short “ a new sensibility that is far from vague.” (Gallagher, 199: 87- 100.)

#13 Notably, Elizabeth Long sees this notion of America as an homogenised society as a central component of the American Dream. (Long, 1985)

Works cited in Chapter Three

ANDREW, Geoff (1998), Stranger Than Paradise, London: Prion.

BLOOM, Allan (1987), The Closing of the American Mind, London: Penguin.

BORDWELL, David, STAIGER Janet and THOMPSON, Kristin (1985), The Classical Hollywood Cinema, Reprinted in 1994, London: Routledge.

GALLAGHER, Michael Paul (1997), Clashing Symbols – An Introduction to Faith & Culture, London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

KAUFFMANN, Stanley (1994), Distinguishing Features, London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

LONG, Elizabeth (1985), The American Dream and the Popular Novel, London: Routledge.

LYOTARD, Jean-Francois, (1979), La Condition Postmodern, Translated in 1986 by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi as The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Rolling Stone, “Too Cool For Words” (Jim Jarmusch interviewed by Tim Holmes), November 6, 1986.

STILLER, Nikki (1987), “A Sad and Beautiful Film”, The Hudson Review, Vol. XL, No. 1, Spring 1987.

Stills, (Jim Jarmusch interviewed by Saskia Baron), No. 29., February 1987.

TAYLOR, Charles (1991), The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard: Harvard University Press.

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