Down by Law
Comparative Film Analysis
“Down by Law”
Jim Jarmusch is one of the prominent post-modernist directors whose works produced a profound impression on the audience and often evoked quite controversial emotions. His films are very original and convey the authentic message of the author, but the director often chooses such means of conveying his ideas that his works are perceived in different way by different people. In fact, some people enjoy his films and believe they are genius. One the other hand, there are people who do not really understand his works and are very critical in relation to his works. At the same time, it should be said that his films are destined not only for specialists but also for the mass audience, though the director’s ideas may be not always clear for ordinary viewers.
Nevertheless, the artistic value of his works is practically undeniable. As a rule, his films are stylistically and artistically rich. The director skillfully applies different stylistic devices, which help him convey his message to the audience. Among films created by Jim Jarmusch, it is possible to single out his film “Down by Law”, which depicts the tragedy of main characters who have to pass through serious challenges in the course of the film. At the same time, this film is a perfect sample of post-modernist films, where main characters confront severe reality of the modern world and where it is really difficult to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong. In his film, the author shows that in the epoch of high technologies, there are still a lot of problems, which affect the life of ordinary people and make the life very difficult and even tragic.
On analyzing the film “Down by Law” by Jim Jarmusch, it is necessary to start with the title of the film because it gives insight into the contents and message of the film. In fact, the title of the film is quite symbolic, though it is practically directly indicates to the overwhelming power of law and its impact on an individual. The title of the film clearly conveys the message that the law can affect the life of people dramatically and what is even more important is that the law is not always right or good. Basically, it is possible to estimate that Jim Jarmusch attempts to moralize and analyze the relationship between an individual and the law. Judging from the title, the director stands on the ground that the law can oppress an individual, it can deprive a person of freedom and punish severely. In this respect, the events depicted in the film are quite logical and basically support first ideas that the title of the film evokes. To put it more precisely, the main characters, Zack, Jack and Bob are cellmates and the director attempts to show that all of them are innocent and was wrongfully accused of crimes they have never committed. Nevertheless, all of them are sentenced and therefore, punished by the existing judicial system, which executes the law established in the society. In such a way, the author uses the title to prepare the audience to the perception of the film and adequate interpretation of his main message and ideas. It gives insight concerning the problem raised in the film, but at the same time, the title also creates certain emotional state or mood, which prepares the audience to perception of the film in the way the director, finds the most suitable. To put it more precisely, the title has quite a negative connotation of the law. Traditionally, the law is associated with justice. The modern society gets used to perceive law as the basis of the social life, since laws regulate relations between people and support the existing social order and social stability. The violation of law naturally leads to the punishment of an individual through which the individual is supposed to be corrected and change his life style and behavior. In other words, the law is viewed as a tool of the adaptation of the behavior of an individual to socially appropriate and acceptable norms. In such a context, the law is viewed as a positive concept since it maintains justice and social stability that are highly appreciated in the modern society.
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However, the title of the film suggests an alternative view on the law. Implicitly, “Down by Law” tends to convince the audience that the law is the punishment above all and its power is used to get people down, while there is little indication to any kind of justice in the title of the film. On the contrary, such a title rather produces an impression that the law is not absolutely just, if not to say unjust. In actuality, the title of the film refers probably to one of the major themes of the film – the relationship between a man and the law. Remarkably, the author attempts to show that the law is really oppressive that may be seen from the title of the film.
However, such a conclusion is logical and the title is only a tool with the help of which the director coveys this idea. In actuality, the entire film shows that the law, as a tool of human justice, is often blind. Jim Jarmusch shows that the law is not a synonym of justice. In stark contrast, the law is shown as a powerful tool which ahs little in common with the concept of justice (Jilesen 236). Even thought the concept of justice is not clearly defined by the director in the film, it is very difficult to get rid of impression that the law is wrong, at least in relation to the main characters, who got their sentences for crimes they had never committed. In actuality, the director manages to show that the concept of law, as a symbol of justice, is very conventional and it seems as if he wants to convince the audience that people should not totally relay on the law and the justice system at large, because there still remains the risk of errors and innocent people can go to prison.
At the same time, Jim Jarmusch pays a lot of attention to interpersonal relations between people. In fact, it is even possible to estimate that the director attempts to underline the significance of interpersonal relationships, which can outweigh even the relationship between a man and the law. Unlike the relationship of a man and the law, the relationship between people is not conventional. It stark contrast, they are very personal and people can learn more about each other through communication and in such a context, decisions of the judicial system made on the basis of law are absolutely irrelevant to people. What is meant here is the fact that the main characters of the film, the three cellmates, could perceive each other as criminals. Formally, all of them were accused and sentenced to different terms. Therefore, they could naturally perceive each other as criminals because the law defined them as criminals. At the beginning of the film the director actually shows that such stereotyping on the basis of decisions of the judicial system can affect the perception of people. In such a situation, it seems to be quite natural that Zack and Jack soon come to blows because they perceive each other as criminals and in actuality; their conflict is to a significant extent, provoked by stereotyping and biased attitudes of Zack and Jack to each other. In fact, it is the biases and stereotypes imposed on them by the law lead them to the conflict.
However, the director of the film apparently does not really believe that the law and the existing judicial system are worth trusting. Jim Jarmusch lays emphasis on the importance of interpersonal relationship, which actually defines the life of people and their perception of each other (Jilesen 218). In other words, the director puts human relationships consistently higher than any conventional norms or regulations imposed on people by laws, traditions, etc. In fact, it is through the interpersonal relationship between people their nature and character is revealed. In this respect, it should be said that from the point of view of the law all the three inmates are criminals, but through their interpersonal relationships, they reveal the fact that they are not as bad as they seem to be judging from their sentences and crimes they are accused of.
On the other hand, the director avoids labeling his main characters as either positive or negative. He wants to show that his characters are real people, they are alive, they have their own feelings, emotions, and ideals. Briefly speaking, they are humans and therefore, they are imperfect. At any rate, Jim Jarmusch does not idealize his characters and shows that they have both positive and negative qualities. At the same time, he shows that the world, society get used to perceive people in such a way through the antagonism between good and bad.
In this respect, the use of black and white color in the film is very symbolic. Traditionally, good and bad is associated with white and black color respectively. Jim Jarmusch has shot the film in black and white intentionally in order to convey his message to the audience. In fact, it is possible to view his film as a kind of mirror where the traditional perception of the modern world is reflected. To put it more precisely, people get used to perceive each other either positively or negatively, people are either good or bad. The choice of colors in the film is very original and unusual for the late 1980s, when there were quite a few films shot in black and white. The director attempted to convince the audience that people get used to perceive this world only in two colors (Hertzberg 175). Therefore, the use of black and white was quite logical since the film just shows people the world in the colors people get used to perceive the world in.
In such a way, the director also warns people about the danger of the loss of other colors since, on perceiving the life through the antagonism of black and white, bad and good, wrong and right, people forget about intermediary states and other colors and concepts. In such a context, when black and white dominates in the film, it is the complexity of interpersonal relationships of the main characters that makes the film really colorful and bright. And again it is possible to speak about a profound attention of the author to interpersonal relations between people, which are extremely important to each individual. Moreover, it is relationships with other people that make human life purposeful and brings in certain sense.
However, the director creates quite an unusual relationship between the main characters. For instance, Zack and Jack do not speak to each other after the conflict, which occurs at the beginning of the film. Nevertheless, it does not prevent them from the establishment of good relationships and it is even possible to speak about a strange but strong friendship between these tow not very talkative men (Hertzberg 153). Their friendship grows stronger as they come through all the hardships after the escape from the prison. In such a way, the author shows that human relations are very complicated and it is very difficult to understand what actually makes people help each other and become friends. At first glace, Zack and Jack have no chances to become friends, at least at the beginning of the film, but by the end of the film, they cannot be viewed nothing but friends, even though they do not talk to each other. Consequently, there should something else in humans that make them feel confident in each other and become friends.
In this respect, it is possible to speak about strong post-modernist trends that can be easily traces in the film, especially through the relationship between Zack and Jack. What is meant here is the fact that Jim Jarmusch actually challenges the existing social norms and purely materialistic view of human life. Obviously, he rejects the supremacy of the law as a synonym of justice. Moreover, he even rejects traditional views on human relations and denies the rigid materialism of the conservative or traditional artists. His characters’ friendship cannot be rationally explained by a scientific theory or logic. Traditionally, normal or positive interpersonal relationships are established through verbal communication, but Zack and Jack have none. Instead, it is rather a kind of spiritual unity or spiritual communication between the main characters. In fact, their friendship is, to a certain extent, almost mystical. At any rate, it is irrational and does not meet any scientific approach that is very typical for post-modernist art at large and films in particular. In this respect, it should be said that, being a post-modernist director, Jim Jarmusch is very skeptical about science as well as about existing stereotypes, social norms, and the law (Suarez 186). Instead, he argues that people are spiritually rich and it is impossible to explain logically and rationally all their actions and behavior. They can make errors and they can suffer from errors of other people or the existing social or justice system, but still they remain people.
Basically, it seems as if the director cannot fully understand human beings, this is why he shows that some of their actions are defined by their internal inclinations or spiritual world. At the same time, the entire film may be viewed as a post-modernist protest against the existing social norms, stereotypes and biases, which limit humans by boundaries of social and legal conventions, norms and regulations. In such a context, the successful escape of the main characters from the prison is very symbolic because, in such a way, they escaped from the social biases and stereotypes, they freed themselves not only literally as they got freedom to move wherever they wanted, but they also got moral and spiritual freedom. They escape form the prison of social stereotypes and unjust laws. Moreover, after the escape, Bob even found his love and became happy that implies that only freeing themselves people can become really happy.
Talking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that Jim Jarmusch is a successful post-modernist director, who attempted to convey his original ideas and his unique vision of the world and men through his works, among which it is possible to single out “Down by Law”. In this work, the author perfectly illustrated the imperfectness of the contemporary world and humans. He lays emphasis on the erroneous nature of the existing laws, stereotypes and traditional views of people, which heavily relay on materialism, rationalism and logic. Instead, he appeals to human nature, to human spirituality and he underlines that people should strive for their own freedom from their own biases and stereotypes. People, according to Jim Jarmusch should be really free as are his characters. Moreover, they should not perceive the world in two colors only, but they should remember that the world is colorful and picturesque.
Hall, Mary Katherine. “Now You Are a Killer of White Men: Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” and Traditions of Revisionism in the Western”. Journal of Film and Video, Winter 2000.
Hertzberg, Ludvig. Jim Jarmusch: Interview. University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
Jilesen, Martien. Jim Jarmusch. Bertz & Fischer, 2001.
Peterson, W. American Post-Modernism. LA: Routledge, 2002.
Suarez, Juan. Jim Jarmusch. University of Illinois Press, 2007.