Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

One of the key works of American independent cinema from the ‘80s, with Jarmusch presenting a beguiling tale of three loners who may or may not need each other’s company.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Jim Jarmusch
1984 | USA | Drama/Comedy | 89 mins | 1.78: 1 | English 
NC16 (passed clean) for some coarse language

Cast: John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson
Plot: A New Yorker’s life is thrown into a tailspin when his younger cousin surprise visits him, starting a strange, unpredictable adventure.
Awards: Won Camera d’Or (Cannes); Won Golden Leopard & Prize of Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention (Locarno); Won Special Jury Recognition (Sundance)
Source: Cinesthesia Productions

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate/Offbeat
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Review #1,695

(Reviewed on Criterion DVD)

Spoilers: No

In the same year that the Coens released their extraordinary first feature, Blood Simple (1984), another emerging American indie filmmaker made his second one. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise must surely rank as one of US independent cinema’s most indelible ‘classics’, a follow-up to the rather half-baked Permanent Vacation (1980).

The stylish filmmaker with a taste for the oddball turns to three loners in this part-daily humdrum, part-road trip movie, shot in beautiful black-and-white.  A young Hungarian man, Willie (played by John Lurie), who has assimilated rather well in the grind and grime of New York, lives alone in a small apartment.

“You know, it’s funny… you come to someplace new … and everything looks just the same.”

Together with his awkward buddy, Eddie (Richard Edson), who frequently visits him to slack and down beers with, the duo tries to make money through poker and gambling on horse races.  Enter Eva (Eszter Balint), the pretty cousin of Willie, who with scant warning from his distant aunt, calls on his place to stay temporarily.

Jarmusch treats each character with care as he develops a fascinating dynamic among the three ‘friends’, marked by a love-hate relationship subject to nonchalance and self-absorption.  Unlike something like Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), romance (or any possibility of it) is discounted.  Furthermore, these folks are almost like strangers who may or may not need each other’s company.

And this I find is the essence of Stranger Than Paradise—the mysterious workings of three persons trying to get to know each other without really doing so.  Each seems to be at the same and different wavelength with one another at the same time.  That is perhaps why this beguiling tale and its characters remain beloved for decades.

“It’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and he’s a wild man, so bug off.”

When we think of the quintessential Jarmusch picture, Stranger Than Paradise almost always come to mind.  As much a rumination about life in its aimlessness as it is about taking that plunge into the unknown to alleviate its very symptoms, the film is in its idiosyncratic way a refreshing energizer.

It is not exactly a well-paced work as much of it is edited in a style where images are cut to black while the diegetic sounds continue, nor is it a moderately interesting film plot-wise, but Jarmusch has made something of a spiritual cleanser.  By seeing the muddle of human beings, we begin to see clearer the pretensions and truths of life.

Grade: A-




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