by Matt Levine
Down by Law is not only Jim Jarmusch’s finest film; it’s also one of the greatest American comedies ever made, not to mention one of the most American movies released over the last half-century. That last designation might seem somewhat meaningless—by what criteria do we deem something more or less American, considering the attributes of national cinemas always point towards generalization and simplification? When we think of distinctly American movies, big-budget Hollywood commercialism or hard-boiled post-World War II film noir might come immediately to mind. But Down by Law, in deceptively complex ways, is about American culture and communication: the natural landscape that’s both desolate and majestic, the simultaneous exploitation and celebration of immigrant populations, the cocky sense of entitlement that masks an all-consuming drive for success and happiness. Jarmusch’s poetic minimalism conceals one of the more remarkable expressions of "Americanness" ever exuded on film.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Producer: Alan Kleinberg
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Cinematographer: Robby Müller
Editor: Melody London
Music: John Lurie
Cast: John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Ellen Barkin, Billie Neal, Rockets Redglare, Vernel Bagneris
Premiere: May 1986 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 20, 1986
US Distributor: Island Pictures (original release), Janus Films
A gravel-voiced Tom Waits song (“Jockey Full of Bourbon,” one of several songs from Waits’ Rain Dogs album that are featured in the film) kicks things off as a long, lateral tracking shot scans the houses in a lower-class New Orleans neighborhood. The shot begins on a long black hearse, then drifts gracefully to the left to observe the somewhat dreary surroundings. A series of tracking shots conveys various locales in the Crescent City, most of which are visibly impoverished; at one point, the camera happens to float past a black man getting arrested by the New Orleans police. Clearly the film identifies from the start with the outcasts of society, those who have been shunned and persecuted by those in positions of power. As in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2014), Jarmusch bemoans the ghettoization of such communities but also lingers on the distinct beauty and cultural diversity to be found there.
Eventually the film alights on two hapless antiheroes, Jack (John Lurie) and Zack (Tom Waits). Jack is a pimp who could hardly seem to care less about his lurid vocation; even one of his prostitutes, a black woman named Bobbie (Billie Neal), ridicules him for his lack of ambition, though he ignores every word she says. Jarmusch’s focus on men unable to communicate with each other ensures that female characters won’t be very prominent in the film, but watch as Bobbie observes Jack and a sleazy crook named Fatso (Rockets Redglare) orchestrate a business deal: clearly Jack is being set up, but Bobbie, grinning gloatingly from the bed, is the only one smart enough to know it.
Zack, meanwhile, is an aimless radio DJ who cares more about his collection of 45's and his leather shoes than any meaningful human relationship; in the fiery screaming match with his girlfriend, Laurette (Ellen Barkin), that opens the film, Zack only responds when she threatens to toss his kicks out the window. Zack is content to drown away his loneliness with whiskey on the N’awlins streets, but another petty crook convinces him to drive a Jaguar across town to a nondescript parking lot. It seems like an easy enough errand, but it turns out there’s a corpse in the trunk—which Zack finds out along with the police, who search the car after pulling him over. Jack and Zack are both witless enough to be easily framed by petty criminals, and eventually end up in the same New Orleans jail cell. It’s only fitting: Jack and Zack are cut from the same cloth, aimless, wandering young Americans who feel no need to work for anything, hiding their failures with an air of cynical superiority.
This lengthy prelude (the two men aren’t imprisoned until about thirty minutes into the movie) is beautifully orchestrated. First of all, we come to know Jack and Zack as likeable, true-to-life characters, which is integral considering the absurd scenarios they’ll stumble into later in the film. This is largely due to Lurie and Waits—both musicians-slash-actors whose natural charisma can carry them through seemingly any role—but Jarmusch’s dialogue and patient plotting also deserve much of the credit. Secondly, Jarmusch’s love for certain snippets of Americana is vividly conveyed—not the apple-pie and baseball kind, but the darker, rougher version of Americana, from drunken jazz music (scored by John Lurie in his Lounge Lizards heyday), to the shadowy urban streets of postwar film noir and Edward Hopper paintings, to the frontier abandon and volatile melting pot of cities such as New Orleans. Lastly, but maybe most importantly, this long first act allows us to savor the lush black-and-white compositions of cinematographer Robby Müller, whose use of light and shadow throughout the film is simply astonishing. Müller has also worked with Wim Wenders and Lars von Trier, so it’s truly high praise to label Down by Law one of his finest visual achievements.
Once they’re in Orleans Parish Prison, Jack and Zack are introduced to a third cellmate: the Italian immigrant Roberto, or Bob (Roberto Benigni), whose reasons for coming to the United States are never elucidated. Bob is an affable spark of energy whose love for American vernacular—not to mention such poets as Walt Whitman and Robert Frost—is met with bemusement from Jack and Zack. Benigni displays his incredible skill at physical comedy immediately: after he’s thrust into the jail cell, he awkwardly shuffles around for a long, silent moment, only to retrieve his notepad of American lingo and finally utter, “If looks can kill, I am a dead man.” It is, again, a sign of the acting and screenwriting prowess on display that the chagrined friendship between the three men is believably developed in about ten short minutes. The highlight, certainly, is the famous “we all scream for ice cream!” gag, in which an innocuous turn of phrase is turned into a riotous catcall by the prison inmates—certainly one of the funniest sequences in any Jarmusch film. But this entire segment of the film is both humane and hilarious: gradually, Jack and Zack are broken down by Bob’s genuine desire to connect with other humans and his love for the little American oddities that a native American could never appreciate (his love of the phrase “I am a good egg” is especially amusing). Many of Jarmusch’s films are about the difficulties of communication and, at the same time, the potential for meaningful connection, a duality that’s beautifully achieved by Down by Law.
The three of them don’t stay in jail for long: Bob hatches an escape plot (partially indebted to American action movies like The Great Escape), and suddenly he, Jack, and Zack are sliding into a drainage tunnel and fleeing into the humid southern air. It’s one of Down by Law’s great absurdist jokes that the most hypothetically exciting scene—the three men’s escape—takes place almost entirely off screen. Jarmusch is more interested in their interaction and the repercussions of their escape than the act itself, and his decision to completely omit the escape scene is a subtle critique on the lopsided priorities of most American movies (in Jarmusch’s view).
Suddenly finding themselves in a scorching bayou environment overrun with swamplands, alligators, and red ants, Jack, Zack, and Bob immediately begin bickering again. Müller’s sun-drenched open-air cinematography, while in direct contrast to the harshly lit city streets that opened the film, are maybe even more gorgeous, and it’s here that Jarmusch is able to convey the intimidating beauty of the southern landscape, bringing to mind the torrid writing of Tennessee Williams or Flannery O’Connor. Despite (or because of) the constant arguing, a friendship almost involuntarily begins to grow between the three men; Lurie and Waits are magnificent in delivering insults laced more with affection than derision.
At last, the men stumble onto an Italian restaurant called Luigi’s Tintop, improbably placed in the heart of the Louisiana wilderness near the Texas border. Of course it’s ridiculous that such a refuge would suddenly appear to them in the middle of the bayou—Jack even admits it must be a mirage—but that hopeful absurdity is exactly the point. Jarmusch’s directorial influences include Preston Sturges and the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (with whom Jarmusch has collaborated several times), and it’s easy to see both directors’ whimsical love of coincidence and hopeful magical realism quietly emerge in Down by Law’s final scenes. Though Jack and Zack are all too willing to let Bob, still wearing his prison jumpsuit, walk blindly into the restaurant—which, if we want to be broadly metaphoric, might represent America’s cold exploitation of immigrant populations, relied upon to bolster our society yet often dismissed by the government and police (witness the current havoc on the US-Mexico border for further dismal proof)—it is Bob’s naïveté and trusting nature that lead to Down by Law’s joyous, hopeful ending. Bob finds love and a home for himself in this unlikeliest of settings, but the final scene between Jack and Zack is almost as triumphant: though they offer no expressions of friendship and can’t even bring themselves to shake hands, their final acerbic farewell is about as close as these immature cynics can come to displaying their intimacy. Their air of entitlement and isolation has started to crumble, if only somewhat. The final image of Down by Law returns to the Robert Frost poem that Bob quotes earlier: all three men decide to take the road less traveled.
Jarmusch has always been a contradictory filmmaker: a complex minimalist, a humanistic formalist, a dialogue-heavy writer who is wary of the possibility of communication (as demonstrated by Bob’s long, un-subtitled monologues in Italian). He is also, ultimately, a cynical romantic, well aware of the faults and injustices of humanity but holding out hope that we’re decent and compassionate at heart. This ambivalence extends to his treatment of his home country, which is explicitly critical in Dead Man (1995) and The Limits of Control (2009) but almost celebratory in some of his other films. Down by Law is obviously aware of the United States’ (and specifically New Orleans’) economic disparities and racial inequalities (look, for example, at the disproportionate number of black men in the Orleans Parish Prison), but it’s also enamored by its distinct culture and the eclecticism of its art and history. In 1984, Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise exploded onto the festival circuit and announced the arrival of a distinct talent in American independent cinema. Down by Law, his next feature, made it clear that this promising talent was in fact one of modern cinema’s great stylists, humanists, and low-key comedians; it’s a triumph that has not yet been matched in Jarmusch’s filmography. Its general tone might be summed up by the first words that Benigni’s Bob utters onscreen: “It is a sad and beautiful world.” Few comedies have expressed that fact as vividly as Down by Law.