Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger than Paradise” is one of the most conspicuously unusual films I’ve ever seen. It accomplishes something which I would imagine is excruciatingly hard for nascent directors who want so desperately to exude a style all their own–it manages to be strange in a way that seems completely organic and natural. This is rare among wide-eyed and impassioned fledgling directors, who oftentimes have a tendency to become mesmerized by the idea of being that unique and strange voice which radically redefines cinema as we know it. Their resultant films invariably come off as contrived, discordant, and worst of all, commonplace in their desire to be unique. They lack a certain life-force which is elusive to all but the chosen, which Jarmusch proves himself to be.
What separates Jarmusch from all the other clumsy and watered-down counterfeits is that he’s able to create a coherent and harmonious film which is governed by its own set of laws and principles. He has the uncanny ability to create a world which bears some resemblance to the one we live in but which is nonetheless wholly parallel and different to the reality we are accustomed to. There is something askew about this movie, and yet we are unable to pinpoint what that something is and where it comes from.
Summarized, the plot seems static and mundane. It’s one of those movies where nothing seems to be happening, and yet by some odd magic it still manages to be captivating. It’s set in motion by the friction that arises between Willie, a Hungarian expatriate turned menial New York laborer, and his cousin Eva, who he has to begrudgingly host for a few days as she settles into the unfamiliar landscape that is the United States. The cultural and linguistic barriers between them preside over all their interactions with a grating tension. Their off-kilter relationship saturates every scene with an eerie and quirky undertone which makes for a dynamic which is fascinating in and of itself. Along with Willie’s friend, Eddie, they go from one opportunistic exploit to the other. They aspire for skimpy pipe-dreams which always end up placing them in a predicament far worse than they could’ve imagined: when they innocently set out to spend a few weeks of refuge in California, they lose all their money betting on dog races of all things. They engage in sleazy money-making schemes in the hope of redemption only to find themselves further encumbered. Their lives don’t so much advance as improve incrementally only to regress back to the same montone level they started at. There aren’t any fateful or pivotal redefining moments in their lives, and the characters aren’t keen on instigating any such radical changes.
And yet, Jarmusch has a delicate ear and a copious imagination which manage find the surreal in the mundane. He captures the collision of two worlds which have, up to this point, been isolated from one another, and the endlessly fascinating consequences which result in its wake.