Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch 1986)

by Douglas Buck August 22, 2020 5 minutes (1022 words) 4k restoration Cinéma Moderne

Two Jarmusch films on consecutive nights, in the theater, both new 4k restorations — Dead Man first, then Down by Law next (I know, out of chronological order, but blame the folks at Moderne! I would’a never watched them this way — my obsessive disorder wouldn’t allow it — even though I’m well aware that picking and choosing out of order can often create some interesting takes on a filmmaker, on my own, I… just… can’t… do… it… ) — what’s really made itself apparent is just how cinema literate of a filmmaker he is… I mean, I guess you can get away with putting a personal spin on the frontier western, as he did with Dead Man, but when you also have a Jarmuschean (yep, I said it) take on a cross neo-noir/road movie on your resume like this one, there’s a clear love and respect for cinematic genres going on here (even if he’s subverting them at every turn, such as not even bothering to either show, or explain, the break-out scene that the entire film hinges around).

The three losers

Following three oddball characters with no previous association – namely, out-of-work disc jockey Zack (Tom Waits), shifty local pimp Jack (John Lurie), and happy dick Italian tourist Bob (Roberto Benigni) – who end up in the same run-down prison cell (with the only one not framed for a crime he didn’t commit being Bob, who explains in his typically excited broken English, with the other two coming to the astonishingly realization, in the typically hilariously understated manner of the film, that the seemingly harmless foreigner actually killed somebody), only to soon escape and end up on the run through the Louisiana backwoods together, Down by Law may operate on a smaller, less formalistic canvas than Dead Man, but it’s equally successful (hell, perhaps even more so) at creating a fully realized, entirely engaging world, one unique to Monsieur Jarmusch.

With Waits, Lurie and Benigni being three of the possibly most engaging actors a hip director like Jarmusch could have ever assembled (and that’s saying something, because I find the shmaltzy, over-sentimental caricature that the Italian star/director Benigni created for himself at that time more than a bit insufferable – it’s hard not to roll your eyes with his antics even in his most celebrated film, Life is Beautiful – but off the deadpan reactions from the two weary, bemused small timers? His boisterous childishness becomes pure delight), like with Dead Man, only with a more deliberate sense of immediacy, their road journey manages to be both absurd, amusing, broad… and ultimately poignant. In other words; alive.

Zack with his had-it-up-to-here girlfriend played by Ellen Barkin

The film’s beginning, setting up the various arrests of our characters, includes some wonderful and welcome cameos (which I guess was already becoming a Jarmusch thing, with everyone already attracted to this this figure of cool) from the likes of the tragic, yet fascinating Lower East Side legend Rockets Redglare, to sexy as hell Ellen Barkin (who was already on the rise at the time so was clearly doing this for fun). Barkin’s single manically-crazed argument scene ending with her (in amazingly big boffo hair) having had enough of her slacker lover Zack and throwing his favorite shoes out the window into the New Orleans streets reveals Jarmusch’s penchant for surrounding his white male characters (ie, himself) with an impressive slew of strongly identified ‘other’ voices that come alive; mirroring Zach with Barkin, the pimp Jack is also given a female partner in his first scene – one of his stable of prostitutes – who lies calmly in bed, comfortably naked, making telling observations about her self-destructive, small-minded pimp, with most of them going way over his head (which also reminds of Blake’s Native American sidekick Nobody, who ultimately guides the initially confused accountant’s journey of self-discovery in Dead Man).

Bob’s fairy tale Italian maiden (played by Nicolette Braschi, to become Benigni’s real life wife soon after the film), discovered by the optimistic Italian in the midst of their run from the police (with the scene of the two new loves dancing happily together, while Zach and Jack look upon with their typically slightly bemused world-weary manner, is filled with so much joy), is clearly written as more a caricature, but it’s fine in her case… she matches Bob, a character who seems to his two fellow escaped cons to be something out of a fantasy anyway. Their union in a nearly abandoned roadside diner is the fantasy complete.

Bob (Benigni) with his soon to be wife Nicolette Braschi

As with Dead Man, Down by Law is shot in gorgeous black and white (made even more so with the 4k restoration), with the late-night dirty streets of the French Quarter the characters wander through rendered perfectly romantic, dirty as hell and grotesque, befitting the tradition of the noir genre that Jarmusch is paying homage to, as well as – admittedly — speaking directly to me (as I’ve said ever since I spent a wasted week there a few years back, if I ever follow through on that big fantasy of running out on the kid, ex-wife, job, payments — the whole fucking thing — to get lost in some darkly fantastic, lurid, drug- and alcohol-fueled neo-noir style life of petty crime? I mean, where else would it end up but New Orleans?) making me love the film even more.

The stuff broken dreams are made of

The inclusion of musicians in the leads allows some perfectly fitting warbly jazzy scoring (from Lurie) accompanied by a refraining song with that down-home quasi-spoken word bohemian flair from Waits himself. And it all feels perfectly… Jarmusch. I’m starting to get the picture here why so many are fond of him. He’s a seriously cool filmmaker, the genuine article, telling cinematically crafty tales following the absurd travels of wonderfully unique, oddball characters, ones that match his own persona. And underneath it all? The thing that separates the ‘hip’ like Jarmusch, from the ‘hipster’? The heartbeat at the center. He doesn’t mock his characters — as witless and confused as they often are. He loves them. And he gets us to do it as well.

Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch 1986)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   jim jarmusch   john lurrie   roberto benigni   tom waits