Down by Law [DVD]
Director : Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay : Jim Jarmusch
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1986
Stars : Tom Waits (Zack), John Lurie (Jack), Roberto Benigni (Roberto), Nicoletta Braschi (Nicoletta), Ellen Barkin (Laurette), Billie Neal (Bobbie), Rockets Redglare (Gig), Vernel Bagneris (Preston)
In Jim Jarmusch’s minimalist comedy Down by Law, three men are stuck in a prison cell together, two of whom are so much alike that they immediately hate each other, and the third of whom might as well be from another planet. The first two men are Jack (John Lurie) and Zack (Tom Waits), whose rhyming names only underscore how interchangeable they are. Both men exist somewhere near the bottom of the social ladder, but neither seems very interested in doing much about it. Jack is a low-level pimp, and Zack is an unemployed DJ whose girlfriend (Ellen Barkin) has just dumped him and thrown most of his worldly possessions out the window. The other significant trait they share in common is why they are in prison: They were both framed.
The first third of Down by Law passes the time languidly, introducing us to these two characters, letting us see the droll rhythms of their passive lives, and then showing us how each was set up and then arrested. The setting for the story is New Orleans, but not the festive French quarter that so many associate with it, but rather the back alleys and slum neighborhoods, all of which are photographed in an expressive and deeply textured chiaroscuro by veteran cinematographer Robby Müller (Paris, Texas) that simultaneously invokes Warner social dramas of the early 1930s and film noir of the ’40s and ’50s. In fact, Down by Law is so thoroughly cinematic that its grim environment doesn’t get us down because we respond to it as having been borrowed from the pulp fiction of yesteryear, not as a reflection of real-world despondency.
Those familiar with Jarmusch’s previous films, most notably his second offering, 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise, can immediately recognize his stylistic imprint, with the emphasis on long takes and a camera that remains largely static unless moving in long, slow tracking shots. To some, this style is maddening; for those who can get in synch with it, it’s poetry.
Jarmusch slows things down to an almost dead halt as Jack and Zack languish in a tiny, graffiti-covered prison cell in the Orleans Parish Prison, barely speaking to each other out of a kind of mutual disgust. Then, the third man is introduced, and the entire tone of the film changes. The third man is a wiry little Italian named Roberto, played by a then-unknown comic named Roberto Benigni. Benigni, of course, won two Oscars in 1998 for his film Life is Beautiful, but in 1986 he was a complete unknown in America, a trait that Jarmusch uses to great effect. The polar opposite of Jack and Zack, Roberto is enthusiastic, optimistic, alive—he smiles constantly, eagerly courts their affection, and tries with all his heart to communicate even though his humorously broken English derives mostly from a little notebook in keeps in his pocket in which he writes various phrases and bits of slang.
These three men (Jarmusch likes to work in threes) end up forming an unlikely alliance, the glue holding them together being Roberto, who discovers a way for them to escape from prison. The last third of the film follows them after their escape (which we never see, one of many interesting—and, for some, frustrating—narrative ellipses throughout the film) as they slog their way through the backwoods of the Louisiana bayou searching for ... well, they’re not exactly sure. Freedom? Escape? Heaven? At one point, Roberto quotes Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” in Italian, and it becomes one of the film’s key thematic moments, setting up a moving final image that would be a cliché if we hadn’t grown to like these odd characters so much.
Jarmusch usually writes his screenplays with his actors already in mind, which befits his tendency to cast actors off the beaten path. Both Lurie and Waits are better known for their music than their acting, and Jarmusch makes the most of their laid-back hipness. They do a lot of slouching and grumbling, which makes them a perfect foil for Benigni, whose persona was already well-formed by this point. His liveliness is infectious, and it’s impossible not to be drawn into his almost childlike enthusiasm. The fact that he is also the most capable member of the group—he’s the one, after all, who devises the escape plan and also manages to find food while the others are starving—makes it impossible to write him off as silly and inconsequential.
Roberto also gets the film’s most emotional moments, including an absolutely beautiful moment in which Jack and Zack temporarily ditch him because he can’t swim across a river, and he stands sadly in a medium shot, babbling nervously to himself in Italian while the sounds of the pursuing police dogs grows steadily louder. It’s a moment in which Jarmusch’s trademark long take works brilliantly along with Benigni’s bittersweet performance—it’s enough to bring tears to your eyes.
When we first meet Roberto, in a brief bit before all the men are arrested, he walks up to Zack and announces as a way of greeting, “It’s a sad and beautiful world.” Although virtually nonsensical in the context of that scene, it couldn’t be a more apt description for the portrait the film paints as a whole. A sad and beautiful world, indeed.
|Down by Law Criterion Collection Director-Approved Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||October 22, 2002|
| 1.78:1 (Anamorphic)|
The high-definition transfer on this disc, taken the 35mm fine-grain interpositive, looks absolutely gorgeous. Cinematographer Robby Müller’s velvety black-and-white cinematography positively glistens. The anamorphic widescreen image, which is matted at 1.78:1, features deep, rich black levels, shimmering whites, and a fine gradation of grays in-between that allow for an exceptional level of detail, to the point that you can read the smallest bits of graffiti on the walls of the jail cell. The image is also extraordinarily clean, betraying virtually no artifacts of any kind. Simply wonderful.
|English, French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural |
The one-channel Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is understandably limited in terms of scope and depth, but it is clear and well presented. Also included is a French track that features Roberto Benigni dubbing his own voice (apparently, he speaks French), as well as an isolated music track that highlights the excellent score by John Lurie and the songs by Tom Waits. In addition, this disc features a brief audio essay by Jim Jarmusch on why he doesn’t like dub tracks on his films, but allowed the French track in this case because of Benigni’s involvement.
| Jim’s Thoughts & Reflections|
While there is no audio commentary included on this disc, this section is the next best thing. Divided into 29 chapters, this is essentially an audio essay in which Jim Jarmusch discusses a wide array of issues related to the making of Down by Law, from the music, to the meaning of the title, to the details about Roberto Benigni’s “rabbit speech” (Jarmusch does a pretty good Roberto impression, by the way).
Video interview with cinematographer Robby Müller
After that, the disc includes a 12-minute solo video interview with John Lurie recorded at Cannes for French television. Lurie, sporting dark sunglasses and looking very uncomfortable, is a rambling, somewhat incoherent interview subject. The real bonus, though, is a hilarious optional audio commentary Lurie recorded in 2002 for his own interview, in which he groans with embarrassment and explains that he was delirious from drugs and lack of sleep (he also tells a great story about falling asleep on Roger Ebert’s shoulder during a dinner party because he snorted sleeping powder thinking it was heroin).
“It’s All Right With Me” Tom Waits music video
Q&A with Jim
Original theatrical trailer
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick