MadZack’s review published on Letterboxd :
I'm a peculiar man. I come complete with a checkered past and a bottle of rye. I can't find steady work and I've deluded myself with fantasies of art. Down By Law is a film about three particularly peculiar men just like me. We are the misfits of our lot. This country operates under a capitalist dogma that we took a stab at but ultimately squandered every opportunity handed to us. We are the lost, we are the vanquished, and we are the absurd. What becomes of capitalism's losers? They wait to live intensely.
Jim Jarmusch is a puzzling genius. His style is absurd, yet it is neo-realist in behavior. His style takes after Rossellini in form and posture, while Chantal Ackerman seems to be chiefly responsible for Jarmusch's bizarre directorial decisions concerning his lingering camera and staged unreasonableness. Down By Law is a deconstruction of the vignette, or tableaux model. It's a revival of the American prison picture as well as a philosophical farce that attacks genre inferences and logic. When I say that Jim Jarmusch is a genius absurdist, I mean it in the most loving way. I mean it philosophically, artistically, and wholeheartedly.
Down By Law states the problem of the absurd in its entirety. Modernity likes to believe that they have treated the philosophical issue of the absurd with egotist antidotes and pseudo-spirituality but Jarmusch demonstrates that the problem of the absurd is now fully understood by the lower levels of society almost exclusively, while the privileged are the winners of the game of life and therefore unseen by the problem. Down By Law suggests that the problem of the absurd is not a serious issue for men who have made of themselves productive members of the greater society. Those who fail to achieve productivity and obtain inclusion within that system do not just merely understand the problem of the absurd, they live it in perpetuity. Down By Law is a film about being cursed by the absurd. It's about being a living clown.
Tolstoy could not live once he understood the meaninglessness of his life. He found religion to be the only cure for nihilism and battled the problem of the absurd with the promise of the Christ. The heroes of Down By Law refuse Tolstoy's methods. They reject philosophy and embrace the absurd truth of life. Our heroes are men who have failed in every dimension of their lives. They don't seek out adventure or meaning, they yearn for future mistakes. They are not here to learn lessons, they are here to battle the absurd. At one point in the film, Roberto tells Zach that he hopes he breaks his heart a thousand times for that would mean that he had loved many women. I see this statement as being applicable to the broader philosophical scope and cultural massage of the film. I hope these men end up in jail a thousand times, for that would mean they had been free and wild more times than any man should be. Down By Law gives us heroes that are tragic and unloved, ones that are undeserving of even friendliness. They are the losers of the world. They are the titans of the absurd.
Down By Law is one of the most important films in my life. I identify with it so much that it's uncanny. It has captured me. The problems Jarmusch illustrates with it are identical to the ones I am facing in my own life at this very moment. I need to figure out how to live with the cold fact that I've lost. What becomes of capitalism's losers? Wait and see. They might just surprise you.
Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni are the three pillars of masculine failure. I share something vital with all of them. We have all rolled the dice and lost. Freedom is an illusion, a delusion, while life is for the living and the damned alike. Down By Law is a perfect film. It is excellently photographed in the inspired tradition of noir, neo-realism, and the contemporary independent style. It accepts the tropes of each visual model and deconstructs the absurd philosophy. It makes a fresh statement about white men and about the absurd reasons that hold up their absurd lives. Existence is meaningless when you're a misfit. There is no broad message to be learned from a meaningless life. But meaningless men can have meaningful connections. They can feel love and they can dream about it endlessly. The problem of the absurd only affects those who allow it to be a problem. If you refuse to recognize the problem of the absurd, you cannot be cursed by it. You can out-run it. You might even be able to escape it. Isolated meanings are meaningless when all you know is isolation. The open air, swamp smell or not, is the only remedy for the absurd. Moments happen and moments cease to happen. Down By Law is a film about something real. It's about the problem of the absurd and how to ignore it honestly.
Down By Law is structurally absurd. Jarmusch doesn't waste time with comprehensive explanations or narrative elucidations. Down By Law is rife with expository absurdities. When our absurd heroes get the idea to escape from prison, it happens out of the blue as if the narrative itself was bored and felt obligated to push forward. Jarmusch never shows us how our absurd heroes managed to escape, he never even gives us ample time to worry about the likelihood of their success. Jarmusch refuses to apply suspense to a situation that is normally always suspenseful. This is a beautiful deconstruction of the prison escape. Jarmusch is more focused on the absurd nature of their plight, rather than with the tropes of genre filmmaking. The time our absurd heroes spend on the lam is certainly intense but with the absence of any truly seen danger. I found myself more concerned with the tension between the heroes themselves as opposed to any outside threat. Jarmusch gives us spatial impossibilities and realistic improbabilties and we must accept them as truths.
Jarmusch's vision is one of the most unique and beautiful I have ever witnessed. He is a filmmaker that is grounded and surreal, practical and absurd. Many filmmakers give us absurd images and content, but only a few actually address the philosophical problem of the absurd. Jarmsuch manages to do both and his maturity as an artist is breathtaking. Jim Jarmusch is one of the finest filmmakers of all time. His films are living portraits and his films are pure. They are otherworldly.
Down By Law spotlights an absurd justice. There is no recognizable or conventional justice in Jarmusch's film. Two of our heroes are falsely imprisoned and condemned, while the thid is a murderer yet his immediate likability seems to forgive him entirely. The police are pictured as slimy and repulsive, possibly even sexually sadistic. The prisons themselves are photographed with detachment. Jarmusch quickly criticizes the American justice system with ease and sets his sight on illuminating the justice of the spirit. Down By Law shows us how to forgive and how to condemn with heart and with feeling. Jarmusch presents an absurd justice that is fair and reasonable. Our absurd heroes are saintlike figures in Jarmusch's mind. Down By Law heralds in a new idea of justice without gods or jailers. The absurd reality of man is its own reward and condemnation. The absurd justice comes full circle. The absurd truths are many and they are kind.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Down By Law, and certainly the most powerful part, is its hopefulness. Down By Law is about the perfect hope: the absurd hope. Jarmusch sees that we absolutely root for the three absurd heroes and that we wish to see the best happen to them. We want his heroes to succeed and to bloom because we love them. This is an absurd hope and it is a genuine hope. This is Jarmusch at his most heartfelt and sincere. When he asks us to hope for greater things, he means it, and he believes it to be possible. Yes, life can be meaningless but nothing can stop us from hoping that it isn't sometimes. Hope is the answer. It is the only reasonable way to battle the absurd or at the very least temporarily outsmart it. One must be an absurd person to hope so deeply and without apprehension. To be absurdly free, one must hope ceaselessly. Hope is the reason for life. Where there is an absurdity, there is a hope also. Hope is made, it is realized over time, and it is enough for now. I will never stop hoping for Down By Law. I will never give up hope because there is a beautiful truth in it. Hope survives, always.
Down By Law is an excellent piece of cinema. It is an artistic triumph and a philosophical masterwork. It's the film that fully expresses the genius of Jarmusch. It's a film that can change lives. It's doing it right now.
I'm in love with this film. Forevermore.