Criterion // 1986 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 8th, 2012
It's not where you start -- it's where you start again.
"If looks could kill, I am-a dead now."
Zack (Tom Waits, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) is a disc jockey with a penchant for self-destructive behavior. Jack (John Lurie, Fishing with John) is a self-absorbed pimp whose business methods are considerably less aggressive than those of others in his profession. Both men frequently engage in illegal activity, but it just so happens that they have both been charged with crimes that they didn't actually commit. They're thrown into a prison cell, and are soon joined by Roberto (Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful), a cheerful Italian man with a limited grasp of the English language. After a begrudging camaraderie begins to develop between the trio, they break out of prison and begin a long, perilous journey to the Texas border. Will they prove capable of simultaneously evading the law and surviving the elements as they proceed?
There are plenty of filmmakers who make meandering films, but few people make meandering films with as much purpose as Jim Jarmusch. Most of his movies are largely comprised of characters doing very little of consequence. Sure, his protagonists may be on a larger mission from time to time, but there are a lot of pit stops along the way that simply allow us to observe the eccentricities of human behavior. Consider the way the title character attempts to live by his unwavering code under all circumstances in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, or the manner in which an assassin follows a specific daily routine in The Limits of Control, or the affectionately cantankerous banter between a hotelier and a bellboy in Mystery Train. Similarly, while it could be said in broad terms that Down by Law is a movie about three fugitives attempting to run to freedom, it's primarily a movie about three interesting people interacting with each other.
If Down by Law feels a little more improvisational than many of Jarmusch's films, that's largely because the characters aren't nearly as focused on their long-term goals. These are people who live in the moment; their long term plans are constantly undone because they're not terribly good at thinking ahead (which is part of why their getaway is considerably less successful than it could be). In a contrasting pair of opening scenes, Jarmusch depicts Zack and Jack being berated by their girlfriends (Zack by a tear-stained Ellen Barkin, Jack by a naked, irritated Billie Neal) for their respective failures. In both cases, the two demonstrate a sort of unaffected aloofness; they seem to be waiting for the noise to end so they can move on with their lives.
One of the simple pleasures of Jarmusch's tale is the manner in which he uses the Benigni character to draw Zack and Jack into a real relationship with other human beings. While I have mixed feeling about Benigni in general, he's never been more delightful or perfectly cast than he is in Down by Law (essentially turning the colorful Waits and Lurie into a pair of bemused straight men). His jovial, eager, chatty demeanor cuts right through the too-cool-for-the-room personas of the other two men, and Benigni's comic timing is killer. Observe the scene in which Roberto goes to great lengths to beg a cigarette from Jack. Jack finally relents, and Roberto happily puts the cigarette in his mouth and begins to walk away. Suddenly, a look of great concern wanders across his face. He walks back to Jack and begins pestering him again: "Excuse-a me...do you have any fire?"
Down by Law is essentially broken into three acts. In the first, we're provided distinctive portraits of the lives Zack and Jack led before being thrown into prison. In the second, we witness Zack, Jack and Roberto forming a bond within the prison. In the third, the trio escapes from prison. The second act is the most consistently satisfying, as it plays kind of like a giddy, extended installment of Jarmusch's enchanting Coffee and Cigarettes (sans coffee). The scene in which the group incites a prison riot built upon the phrase, "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream," is a wild little slice of pure movie magic. The movie loses a little steam during its post-escape sequence, but compensates for that somewhat with fantastic, noir-tinged black-and-white cinematography courtesy of Robby Muller (a proven master at capturing vast, spare landscapes in films ranging from Paris, Texas to Jarmusch's Dead Man).
The first time through, it's tricky to tell where Down by Law might be going at any given moment. It's not playing narrative con games, but simply allowing things to evolve in a way which feels natural rather than scripted. Late in the film, Zack warmly extends his hand to Jack. Just as Jack reaches out in return, Zack pulls his hand away and grins. The whole movie's like that; slippery in a playful, charming, silly sort of way. The movie may be a bit slight, but it's such a pleasure to hang out with these guys that the larger tale is almost beside the point.
Down by Law (Blu-ray) arrives sporting a terrific 1080p/1.78:1 transfer which allows the viewer to fully appreciate the lyrical visual beauty it offers. It's clearly a low-budget flick in some regards, but it never falters in the visual department. Every shot, every set and every costume choice seems just right, and the excellent detail offered by this disc goes a long way towards enhancing that fact. Blacks are deep and inky, shadow delineation is strong (there are moments when I was reminded of Criterion's masterful Night of the Hunter transfer) and a light, pleasing layer of grain is present throughout. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is a little less remarkable (the movie is largely dialogue-driven and isn't too complex in terms of sound design), but the bookending Tom Waits songs sound fantastic and the dialogue is clean (though Waits and Lurie tend to mumble their lines).
The supplement package is generous if a bit heavy on audio-only features. You get a 73-minute audio essay from Jarmusch, audio of Jarmusch making phone calls to Waits (28 minutes), Benigni (13 minutes) and Lurie (24 minutes), a 24-minute audio Q&A session with Jarmusch and a 3-minute piece in which Jarmusch talks about why he dislikes dubbing. However, there's plenty of video goodies: an interview with Robby Muller (22 minutes), a 41-minute presentation of a Cannes Film Festive Press Conference featuring Jarmusch and some cast and crew members, a John Lurie interview (11 minutes) from the time of the film's release, 24 minutes of outtakes, a Tom Waits music video, some production stills, a trailer and a leaflet featuring an essay by Luc Sante. Plenty of worthwhile stuff here, though I wouldn't recommend attempting to plow through all of it in one sitting.
Down by Law is another of Jarmusch's low-key pleasures. Criterion's fine Blu-ray release makes it an easy recommendation.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Interviews
* Additional Footage
* Music Video
* Production Stills