Down By Law

USA | 1986 | Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Logline: When three mischievous strangers find themselves sharing the same jail cell after each being set-up, framed or simply acting in self-defence, they escape into the wilderness of the Louisiana everglades.

Maverick indie auteur Jim Jarmusch hit the nail of bittersweet irony squarely and beautifully on the head with this black and white jazz riff on unlikely friendships forged in times of despair. It is arguably one of the most egocentric comedies of the 80s, and certainly one of Jarmusch’s crowning achievements, along with his monochromatic masterstroke Dead Man and the short Coffee and Cigarettes – Somewhere in California, all of them as elusively existential as they are ristretto black in humour.

Down by Law was Jarmusch’s third feature (and the only feature he’s made with American financing) and his first using Robby Müller behind the lens. Müller, a magician of monochrome, casts the film with superb tones and textures; the weathered homes along the streets of New Orleans, to the luminescent jungle of the everglades.  This is film noir transplanted from the city and off the beaten track. It’s a fairy tale love story, but you’d never see it coming. It’s the buddy flick transmogrified. It’s a jam session of mood swings.

Zack (Tom Waits, in brilliant form) is an out-of-work disc jockey. He’s been given the boot by an irate girlfriend (Ellen Barkin, hilarious opening scene), and drunkenly takes the offer of a hot drop-off. Jack (John Lurie) is a pimp who should know better, ‘cos the jailbait and a tip-off gets him in hot water with the long arm of the law. Roberto (Roberto Benigni) is an Italian tourist who finds himself in the deep end with some thugs and ends up killing a man with a billiard ball by accident; “Eees a sad and beautifohl world.”

The three of them find it difficult coping with the claustrophobia of the tiny jail cell they’ve been thrown in. Roberto tries to lighten the mood, but only aggravates the other two who don’t want a bar of each other. The numerous scenes behind bars are some of the movie’s funniest. Each character is a wonderful contrast against the other two; the laconic posing of Jack, the languid witticisms of Zack, and the manic observations and interjections of Roberto.

The soundtrack is fantastic; incidental music provided by John Lurie, and a selection of songs (taken from Rain Dogs album) performed by Tom Waits. It fits the mood of the movie hand in glove. As does the long takes, breezy editing, and rambling narrative. Like all of Jarmusch’s work, the emphasis is less on the narrative structure as a whole and more on the individual moments that glide together.

In the movie’s second half – after an hilarious night spent in a shack where Roberto quotes famous American poet Walt Whitman – our three intrepid fugitives arrive at a small cottage. Roberto is chosen to investigate. He doesn’t return, and later Jack and Zack hear him laughing with a woman. It is here we meet gorgeous Nicoletta (Nicoletta Braschi) and it is from her humble abode that the three men will part ways.

Down by Law left such an indelible impression on me when I first saw it at the Wellington Film Festival in '86; in terms of mood, atmosphere, the nuances of character and acting, the unassuming, yet utterly poetic direction, it immediately became a personal favourite and has remained in my inner sanctum of cinema for more than twenty years. Savour it like fine boutique bourbon.