Down by Law (1986)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Strange Paradise: The Cinema of Jim Jarmusch. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Jim Jarmusch is one of cinema’s great minimalists, second only perhaps to Robert Bresson. For his third outing, Down by Law, Jarmusch focused his story on three perpetual losers for which very little works out. Losers and low-lives are Jarmusch’s most common characters and here he chooses a washed-up disk jockey, Zach (legendary singer/songwriter Tom Waits, who like Jarmusch has yet to find the following he deserves), a low-level pimp named Jack (John Lurie) and an Italian tourist Roberto, called Bob (Roberto Benigni in his English-language debut).
These three ne’er-do-wells end up in a jail cell together in Louisiana, first Zach and Jack who are at first constantly on each other’s nerves then become more or less friends. Both were set up and neither can prove it. Bob is then put in with them (unlike Zach and Jack, whose stories we follow from the start, Bob we only see for a fleeting moment writing down American slang which he only occasionally uses appropriately) and they take to him but more to mock than to befriend.
For his third outing, Down by Law, Jarmusch focused his story on three perpetual losers for which very little works out.
One day playing cards, Bob comes up with an idea to break out of prison, now having been there for what must have been several months on top of Zach and Jack’s month or so before his arrival. He thinks he knows what to do because he saw it in a movie. Zach and Jack go along with it, hoping but seemingly not believing that it will work. When it does work, they have to survive in the bayou with only the wits of the three of them to survive.
The story of course goes on from there because the film is all story with very little plot. It’s a marvel to me that something so simple could not only be a feature length film but an interesting one at that. The way Jarmusch writes these characters is really kind of amazing. Actually, the way the performances work, so naturalistic without any artifice I wonder how much was scripted and how much was worked out on set. I hesitate to say improvised, since few films have completely extemporaneous dialogue, the ad-libs from takes are worked into the scripted lines so the flow fits the character the actor has crafted from the writer’s words.
In this case, the performances from Waits and Laurie are a mixture of relaxed and stilted. Sometimes both sound like they’re repeating written lines and trying to put a spin on them and other times the words just flow through their characters and make them real. Waits is the only non-actor here, and sometimes it shows. Laurie had been in a few films before this, including Jarmusch’s first two films and Benigni had been writing, directing and acting for several years in Italy (his film after this one even had Laurie in it). Only Benigni really seems to have a handle on how to use the script to his advantage consistently, using his broken English to great effect to convey his outsider status. Waits and Laurie rely mostly on attitude and aloofness to show that neither of their characters fit in no matter where they go. That’s not to say the performances from Waits and Laurie aren’t good. The simple fact of Zach’s and Jack’s professions, a DJ and a pimp respectively, shows that these characters have to create characters to play for their lines of work. A DJ has to affect a certain likability and pimps need to be hard to be successful, and neither of these characters can do that in their private lives.
His use of black and white seems to suggest the opposite of what it should imply, which is that the world is black and white with no grey.
Jarmusch also took the step to film in black and white. This could have been a budgetary constraint, but his two previous films were in color so I doubt that. His use of black and white seems to suggest the opposite of what it should imply, which is that the world is black and white with no grey. The characters are the color of the film, daring us to look beyond the simplicity of what we can see to get to a deeper truth of the world and the people in it. He makes us see these characters for who they are, not what we’re told they do. Benigni’s character is a perfect example. He’s in prison for murder and shows no real remorse for it, but his affability makes you forget that. The murder may have been an accident but there is still very little time spent on it so we don’t get hung up on the fact that he killed someone. We see him and like him for who he is.
Everything in the film works together to make this a truly unique viewing experience. Jarmusch doesn’t use elaborate set pieces and rarely strays from the three leads once they are together in the cell. The beautiful thing about Down by Law and indeed most of Jarmusch’s work is that even while working in on independent stage where visual minimalism rules, mostly due to budgetary constraints, he stands out by making his story just as confined as his set pieces. He boils the story down to its essence and uses the least amount of resources to tell that story. He inspired an entire generation of independent filmmakers to go small and make films about people instead of causes and themes. Some of those directors went mainstream and others stayed out of the studio system, but his impact is felt all around.
Down by Law may not be to everyone’s taste because it does unravel slowly and at times doesn’t seem to have a focus, but if you are willing to spend some time with low-lives who just let things happen to them until they just can’t take it anymore and take control of their fates, all without pomp or flair but simply by willfully changing the direction of their lives, sit down with this and you’ll be mesmerized by the beauty simplicity can bring.
The beautiful thing about Down by Law and indeed most of Jarmusch’s work is that even while working in on independent stage where visual minimalism rules, mostly due to budgetary constraints, he stands out by making his story just as confined as his set pieces.