Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Tom Waits (Zack), John Lurie (Jack), Roberto Benigni (Roberto), Nicoletta Braschi (Nicoletta), Ellen Barkin (Laurette), Billie Neal (Bobbie), Rockets Redglare (Gig), Vernel Bagneris (Preston), Timothea (Julie), L.C. Drane (L.C.), Joy N. Houck Jr. (Detective Mandino).
There are more than a few similarities between Down By Law and Jarmusch’s previous film – Stranger Than Paradise. Both are film in stark black and white, favoring long takes by an unmoving camera. Both center on a group of three people and has a very clearly defined three act structure. Both are comedies, yet pitched at such a subtle level you don’t always notice at first glance that they’re funny. Both also see America almost a desolate wasteland. While most of Stranger Than Paradise took place in places Jarmusch knew well - New York, where Jarmusch lives and or Ohio, where he grew up – Down By Law is set in New Orleans, a place Jarmusch admits he had never been to until he started scouting locations for the movie – the screenplay already written. No matter however – one of Jarmusch’s great skills is the ability to make anywhere look desolate and sad. He doesn’t take us to the parts of New Orleans we always see in the movie – he takes us to the places we never see – seedy apartments, dirty back alleys. As a character in Stranger Than Paradise notes “It’s funny how you go someplace different, and everything is the same”.
In the film’s first act, we meet two men – Zack (Tom Waits) and Jack (John Lurie). Zack is thrown out of the apartment he shares with his girlfriend (Ellen Barkin) in the film’s opening scene, where she screams and screams at him, and all he can offer in return is “Well, I guess we’re through then”. He retrieves his shoes from the gutter Barkin threw them in, and heads out into the streets of New Orleans. He is discovered, drinking alone on a desolate street by a man he kind of knows – who offers him $1,000 to drive a Mercedes from one end of town to the other. He knows he shouldn’t do it – but does so anyway. And he’s arrested – and the police find a dead body in the trunk. Jack is a pimp first seen talking to one of his girls, but not really listening to her – as she tells him he doesn’t understand women, and offers her view of America as “a melting pot, because when you bring it to a boil, all the scum rises to the surface”. He is also approached by a man he knows – this one who owes him money he doesn’t have – but tells Jack he has something else – a “19 year old Cajun goddess” waiting from him in a hotel room across town, and wanting to be another of his girls. Jack shows up at the darkened hotel room, and starts his spiel about taking care of her – only to be shocked by two things – first, the girl in question is much younger than 19, and second it’s all been a sting by the vice squad (a detective is seen saying almost the same words to the young girl Jack was after he’s hauled away).
These two men find themselves cellmates in the county jail in the film’s second act – and almost immediately dislike each other. They are too similar, and confined to a cell where Zack will go days without speaking, they are starting to drive each other insane. And that’s when they get a new cellmate – Roberto (Roberto Benigni) – an Italian tourist, who unlike Zack and Jack, was not set up for their crimes – he admits he killed a man, but says it was in self defense. Even being in jail cannot dampen Roberto’s spirits. He speaks in broken, often hilariously unintelligible English – he has his own homemade phrase book that he often looks through to find the right thing to say, and it comes out all wrong (“If looks can kill, I am dead now.”) Slowly the men bond – it’s an uneasy bond between Zack and Jack – and Roberto plans their unlikely escape – and flight through the swamps and bayous of Louisiana.
Down By Law is a little looser than Stranger Than Paradise – in which every scene seemed perfectly constructed and the narrative, however slight, seemed more focused. Down By Law is primarily what Tarantino would call a “hang out movie” – one where the pleasure derived is basically in getting to spend time with these three interesting characters. Tom Waits had a few bit parts before, but this was his first real acting role – and he seems to come fully formed. Waits will never play a normal character – not that we’d want him to – and he hits all the right notes as Zack. John Lurie, who already delivered an excellent performance in Stranger Than Paradise, is also great here. The two men are focused purely on the present – the past doesn’t matter and we don’t learn anything about it – and the future is unsure. In his first performance in an American movie, Benigni delivers what may just be his best performance. He had never been to America, and spoke no English, when Jarmusch met him at a film festival, and decided to write a role for him. His performance here is the funniest he’s ever been – with his mangled English and constant, upbeat optimism, that eventually wears down the quiet exteriors of Jack and Zack – the scene where the men cause an uproar in the prison by screaming “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream” is a comic highlight.
This is the first film in which Jarmusch worked with cinematographer Robby Muller – also a favorite of Wim Wenders and Lars von Trier (as an aside, I can think of few cinematographers work worthy of a lifetime achievement award from the Oscars – where despite an amazing career spanning nearly 40 years and 70 films, he has never even been nominated). Muller’s black and white cinematography is a highlight of the movie – finding both the sadness and beauty in every location (as Roberto says at one point, “It’s a sad and beautiful world”). Jarmusch’s love of long takes with an moving camera is the correct choice here – he often frames the three men together in a single shot, and allows their interactions to play out for minutes on end – which gives us more honest reactions from the actors than constant cross cutting could.
I think Stranger Than Paradise is a better film than Down By Law – the sum of its parts added up to a greater whole. I’m not sure the sum of the parts of Down By Law add up to all that much – I think Jarmusch is going for a kind of magic realism in the closing scenes, that he would accomplish better in his later films. Yet Down By Law is so entertaining, and so great to look at, that I hardly care.