Down by Law (1986)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch | 106 minutes | comedy, crime, drama | Actors: Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Ellen Barkin, Billie Neal, Rockets Redglare, Vernel Bagneris, Timothea, LC Drane, Joy N. Houck Jr., Carrie Lindsoe, Ralph Joseph, Richard Boes, Dave Petitjean
After seeing Jarmusch’s first film, the distant, semi-abstract ‘Permanent Vacation’, the more cohesive and elegant ‘Down By Law’ is a relief. From the opening frames, with a succession of sideways moving tracking shots that are characteristic of the film maker, showing different locations that figure in the film – houses, a swamp, a wasteland – you are drawn into the film world. The music of Tom Waits plays a large part in this, whose ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’ accompanies those first images in an exciting way. Unfortunately, the film gradually sinks in in terms of tension, but ‘Down By Law’ is – certainly considering the sparse content and characters – a surprisingly effective and entertaining piece.
Zack (Tom Waits), a mostly untalented DJ who doesn’t want to bend over backwards to commercialism – and Jack (John Lurie), a (wannabe) pimp who actually seems to have a civilized work ethic (he beats ‘his’ wives) don’t and don’t exploit them), both aren’t really good at maintaining (romantic) relationships. Nor are they blessed with an excess of business acumen – or ‘street smarts’, say common sense – as they are both framed by the wrong types and end up in jail.
Until then, the film, shot in stylish black-and-white, exudes an atmosphere of coolness and rock & roll attitude, with femme fatales, dubious (criminal) proposals and characteristic loners. The first days (or weeks) in prison, this atmosphere remains largely intact, with a nice tension between the taciturn Zack and the slightly irritated Jack, who feels too good for the prison and the inmates, but then tries in vain to get something out from Zack.
This sometimes almost explosive tension is slowly but surely nullified by the arrival of the pleasantly disturbed Benigni, who mainly speaks Italian, but now and then throws in an English expression or a poetic or otherwise valuable statement, which he keeps in his notebook. ; with a heavy Italian accent of course. The moment of entering is a feat of non-verbal communication, with Benigni trying to establish an attitude when approaching the unobtrusive Zack and Jack.
Initially the clownish Italian gets on the nerves of the two rough men, but slowly but surely they begin to thaw, culminating in the moment when they burst into a kind of dance of joy while singing the funny verse ‘I scream-a, you scream-a , we all scream-a for ice cream-a!’ shouting out a sort of mantra, followed by half the prison; as a kind of comic variation of the aria in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, which blares unauthorized through the loudspeakers and makes the entire prison free for a moment.
In the third act, in which the three main characters (try to) escape, ‘Down by Law’ collapses a bit. The interactions between the characters are mostly variations on previous discussions and frictions, and the story doesn’t really go anywhere. The closing scenes do have an interesting surreal touch, with an unexpected twist and a (semi) poetic atmosphere. This is where Jarmusch’s unconventional but effective directing of the actors stands out. Although the here still unknown Benigni is a clearly comedic talent, who already knows how to hold the attention quite well, Waits and Lurie are not the most interesting actors in themselves and it is mainly the way in which Jarmusch portrays – and keeps – everything. that keep your eyes glued to the screen.
In one scene, in fact, the most important thing is in the foreground, but Zack and Jack are constantly watching in the background, whose varying reactions increasingly demand attention. These few minutes say almost more about the characters of these two characters than their ‘scenes’ in the rest of the film. In short, ‘Down by Law’ is generally not a bad film – and just looks good – but the gems are in the details.