The films of Jim Jarmusch have an unwavering hipness that is often borrowed, but never successfully recreated. In sorts, Jarmusch is the Tarantino of independent filmmaking. His 1986 masterpiece Down By Law certainly has all the cool wry wit of his other films, along with a smooth soundtrack and some very impressive acting on the part of the enigmatic Tom Waits. Down By Law is a film that is colorful, despite being filmed in black and white and complex, despite centering around a small cast of characters, and beautiful despite being set in the most desolate portions of New Orleans. It also presents a diverse set of characters whose lives intersect inexplicably and tangentially, yet seem almost preordained or something far more meaningful than coincidence. Down By Law is for lovers of cinema, and is a staple in the canon of independent filmmaking as it relates to the United States.
The plot is surprisingly coherent for a Jarmusch film, perhaps being accredited to it following only three characters, whose narratives intertwine in a New Orleans jail. The first being the broken down radio DJ Zack (Tom Waits) whose recent drunken stupor lands him in jail, after unknowingly agreeing to transport a dead body. The second is Jack (John Lurie), a pimp who is tricked by a rival conman into approaching an underage girl about prostitution and finally Roberto “Bob,” played masterfully by director Roberto Benigni, an Italian immigrant whose miscommunication during a poker game leads to his accidental murder of an opponent. The three men appear indifferent to one another as the story unfolds, each seeing their imprisonment as unjust and resenting all things related to the prison, including one another. However, after bonding over a riotous moment, inspired by Bob’s lack of English, the men begin to trust one another and Bob hatches an escape plan. The group escapes from the prison with relative ease only to discover the treacherous nature of Louisiana swampland far more formidable than prison. The group eventually finds shelter in a boathouse that is eerily similar to their prison cell, only to venture out in a faulty boat that quickly sinks. Luckily for the trio, they stumble upon a road that leads them to a coffee shop. Zack and Jack realize the perils of walking into a public place still donning prison garb and send the culturally oblivious Bob into the place as a sacrifice. Bob, however, fails to return after many hours. In a moment of confusion Zack and Jack approach the house to see Bob being treated to the hospitality of an Italian woman, leading them to quickly enter the house and join the fun. The group is treated as though they are any other guest by Nicoletta (Nicoletta Braschi), given that she fails to realize their uniforms significance. After a night of drinks and conversation the three split ways, Bob decides to stay with Nicoletta, while Zack and Jack leave at a crossroad, only offering words of sarcasm as they diverge. The plot thus ending in simplicity, a sentimental film for Jarmusch that is as simple in its narrative as it is profound.
The brilliance of Down By Law is its study of imprisonment, particularly as it relates to its metaphoric sense. Each of the trio is imprisoned by something and it takes the happenchance encounter and subsequent literal escape from prison to help them free themselves figuratively. For Jack it is a matter of freeing himself from apathy, particularly as it relates to his belief that he could be better than a pimp, but has not been given a fresh start to change this action. By breaking from prison and reemerging into civilization, Jack is able to recreate his image, free of a problematic and undesirable past. For Zack his troubles stem from his own self-loathing and inability to ask others for help. His standoffish ways are broken as he is forced to perform his DJ routine face-to-face with Jack, as well as save Bob who is almost captured do to his fear of swimming. Ultimately, Zack finds freedom in his wit and recognition that his own happiness exists partially from accepting that those around him can be happy as well. Finally, Bob is imprisoned by language, a barrier that seems impossible to transcend throughout the film. It is not until he is able to accept his Italian ways in the face of death that he is freed, this acceptance of his difference is validated by meeting Nicoletta who shares his identity, thus freeing him from loneliness. Each character ends the film in solitude, but in this instance, it is void of self-imprisonment.
Buy this film. Jim Jarmusch has an excellent relationship with Criterion and it is reflected in the dvd supplements. A copy is necessary, share it with your friends, or anyone you remotely care about.