Jim Jarmusch’s films are all about textures and surfaces. Down By Law is emblematic.
It sometimes feels like he’s hinting at wellsprings of deeper meaning or emotion, but everything is held at a remove – cold, observing, often ironic. This probably contributes to the love-it-or-hate-it reactions his films seem to inspire, especially the early ones: are they studies in the carefully calibrated hipsterism of people who cloak their authentic selves in the trappings of cool, or particularly egregious examples of it? Both? Neither?
In either (or any) case, they certainly look good: shot in stark black and white, and obsessed with contours and physical details, the camera glides over the surroundings, or stays completely still as people come and go. It’s hard to find a better word for it than “cool.”
In his feature debut, 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise, the arrival of a foreign, female cousin broke the routines of two caddish, cynical American guys, and the three set out on a bickering, amusing road trip to Florida. It even obliquely addressed issues of constructed identity: the cool guy’s cousin irritates him, with her old-country ways that highlight how much he’s tried to leave them behind and her unironic embrace of American pop culture. (It also is easily a contender for another Song for a Sunday, as she dances around the kitchen to Jarmusch regular Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You.” “Fuck is that?” he asks. “I really hate that kind of music.”)
Down By Law, from 1986, features another triad: a pimp, an unemployed DJ, and an Italian tourist who wind up, for various reasons, in a jail cell together in New Orleans. It’s typical of the film that their escape from jail is left off camera: one minute they’re locked up, the next they’re on the run through the Louisiana bayou. Jarmusch doesn’t have the time or inclination to sketch out their big plan. The movie traffics in Hollywood tropes, but from odd angles.
According to Roger Ebert, Jarmusch said he’d never seen the bayou before arriving to shoot Down By Law. This also makes a lot of sense. The New Orleans and surrounding areas here are more related to cinema than geography – these are noir landscapes, Southern Gothic cemeteries, sweaty unventilated upstairs rooms in fleabag motels, waterways that seem more out of Night of the Hunter than anywhere specific in the world.
The film’s opening conveys a lot of this. Beginning with a sleek shot of a hearse, it’s a constantly shifting montage set to Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” the first single off Rain Dogs. It’s a travelogue of some sort of imaginary South, gleaned from film. Waits also stars – again, appropriately enough, for a very self-aware kind of movie – as the unemployed DJ who’s set up for a murder he didn’t commit.
The song combines a lot of things at once: spaghetti western flourishes, driving blues, jazz riffing, Waits’ whiskey growl. The lyrics are pastiche nonsense, but the repeated phrase lingers at the start of this movie, giving everything a feeling of rootless dread: “The house is on fire, the children are alone.”
I especially like how Jarmusch fades the song out for brief exchanges, before coming back full blast. John Lurie rises from his bed, asks (presumably) one of the sex workers what she’s doing outside on the porch – she replies, “Just watching the light change.” He lies back down, and the girl in his bed opens her eyes and stares at the ceiling. Waits enters some other room in town, clearly drunk at dawn; graffiti on the wall has a gallows’ humor thing going – the most visible reads, “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop.” He too lies down next to a girl, who might’ve just been pretending to sleep; her eyes open and she too stares at the ceiling.
Jarmusch manages to convey a lot of information quickly about these characters, where they are, and how they relate to each other, while leaving much of it mysterious. And all the while, the song keeps pulsing, with Waits warning, “The house is on fire, and the children are alone.” The shots are beautiful and alluring, but there’s clearly some bad shit afoot.