Jim Jarmusch is one of the filmmakers whose entire body of work – Stranger than Paradise (1983), Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995) and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) – has garnered a cult following. There is a distinctive ‘Jarmusch style’ running through his films, most evident in his pacing. He relishes taking his time, indicating his characters with odd, seemingly incidental details that say as much as any heavy exposition.
It is often difficult to choose a single film when there is a cult around the director’s body of work. Comparable in many ways to another contemporary American cult director, Hal Hartley, each Jarmusch film is a step in the artist’s evolution. The scope, budgets and themes may expand with each picture, but an unmistakable style is imprinted on all. All his signature flourishes are in evidence in Jarmush’s second feature Down by Law. A low-budget, black-and-white cult favourite from 1986, Down by Law establishes a kind of tight continuity because of its limited resources.
Jack (John Lurie), a big-talking small-timer and ineffectual pimp, Zack (Tom Waits), an itinerant disk jockey with a mane of messy hair and pointy-toed shoes, and Roberto ‘Bob’ (Roberto Benigni) end up in the same Louisiana jail cell. Jack and Zack are framed for child prostitution and murder respectively. Bob, an Italian who speaks very little English, is locked up because he killed a man with a poolball. Jack thinks he has a voodoo curse on him; Zack merely drove a dead body to another town for a few dollars. And while Bob comes across as the most innocent of the group,he is ironically is the only one who is actually guilty.
Jack and Zack may hate each other. But hate is nothing compared to the emotions they feel for the Italian, who commits the unpardonable sin of being constantly cheerful. Bob writes down American figures of speech and repeats them in his exaggerated accent. When he is introduced to the expression, ‘You scream. I scream. We all scream for ice cream,’ he repeats it from his notepad and soon incites the prison to riot chanting: ‘You scream! I scream. We ALL scream for ice cream!’
It is telling that the three end up escaping not from jail’s harshness but its mind-numbing boredom. I love that the prison break, which would be the crux of most films, is never shown or diagrammed. It is merely discussed, and in the next shot the three are outside and on the l am. Likewise there is no courtroom sentencing, nor an explanation of why Zack and Jack were set up. These plot points are inconsequential as this is a relationship film.
All Jarmusch films feature people whose mutual dependency is not deterred by their inability to understand one another. He uses a multitude of devices including language barriers, race, gender, musical preferences, class, personal morality and family to illustrate this. There may be animosity about the effort required to connect with one another: Ellen Barkin has a wonderful cameo as Zack’s girlfriend, whose tantrum culminates in his possessions being thrown into the street. Again it is not the disdain between characters so much as the frustration in their not connecting that drives her over the edge.
There are good performances in this film. Tom Waits is not simply a talented musician dabbling in acting; he is a vessel of soulful heartache that can convey sympathy in any medium he chooses (one need only to have seen him shine as strongly as co-stars Streep and Nicholson in Ironweed to know this). But this film is absolutely carried by Roberto Benigni. He lights up the screen so effortlessly and infectiously that it is no wonder he affects those around him as strongly as he does. He is a genius of charisma, and the scenes with his real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi foretell and perhaps even eclipse their charming chemistry in La Vita E Bella (Life is Beautiful).
Down by Law works so well due to timing. You can’t rush this film. Every gesture is significant in meaning and consequence. It takes its time expressing the solitude of its characters, but never broods. The characters seem to inadvertently provoke rather than react, creating the necessary pretext for the endearingly awkward connections. Enjoy.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer(s): Jim Jarmusch
Runtime(s): 107 minutes
Country: US, West Germany
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.