The '80s were not kind to American indie cinema. For the most part, gone were the 1970’s mavericks, and with them the distributors and studios willing to bank them. And so, smack dab in the middle of the American conservative cinematic establishment stood the fiercely idiosyncratic and subversive Jim Jarmusch, revelling in the piss and vinegar of life. How remarkable and ironic it was for the director whose creative peak was this decisively uncreative period. 'Down By Law' sits right on top of Jarmusch’s creative peak, a beacon for the future Steven Soderberghs, Quentin Tarantinos and Paul Thomas Andersons.
Down By Law (1986) dir. Jim Jarmusch
Starring: John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni
By Alan Bacchus
Like Jarmusch’s previous Permanent Vacation and Stranger than Paradise, Down By Law sympathizes with the lost souls of the '80s, the weirdoes who couldn’t fit into Reagan’s America, the ones left behind by the sanitization of an extreme free market capitalist mentality. What an inspired trio of actors who fit together in the most unconventional of ways. John Lurie and Tom Waits, for instance, communicate more with their charismatic and intense faces, and Roberto Benigni is a comic sparkplug who lights up every scene he’s in.
There’s only a whiff of a story, the opening scenes of which show how petty criminals Zack (Waits) and Jack (Lurie) – similar names which makes for a great gag with Benigni – fall victim to unfortunate circumstances and find themselves unlawfully in prison. Their days languishing in the jail consist of playing poker, waiting for the guards to light their cigarettes and arguing. Enter Roberto, a naïve tourist who also finds himself in prison inexplicably for manslaughter. Without Roberto, Zack and Jack are like oil and water. But with him in the room they are in harmony. It’s Roberto who hatches a plan to escape (with relative ease), which has them on a Tom Sawyer-like journey through the Louisiana bayou to freedom.
The joys of Down By Law exist in the silences. Jarmusch features long static takes skewed with wide angle lenses. But even in these most undramatic of moments it never feels like dead air. It’s the faces and attitude of his characters that create the pulse of the film. John Lurie in particular, the standout from Stranger than Paradise is interminably watchable even when he’s not doing anything. Even as a pimp trading women on the street he’s a loveable doofus. And Tom Waits brings a laid back coolness, as he's unaffected by anything that crosses his path.
Without being a rock and roll movie, Down By Law has the spirit of the lifestyle without the music. Certainly Tom Waits' presence helps create this feeling, but the key is Jarmusch’s distinctly slacker mentality even before there was such a term. The characters simply exist without any dramatic artifice. Zack, Jack and Roberto are the genuine article oddballs whom we simply want to observe being themselves fighting their way through a conformist sterile world.
Down By Law is available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.