When it comes to the films of Jim Jarmusch, many cinephiles, myself included, are prone to letting the coolness and mystique of the man get in the way of judging the quality of his films. However, if there was one Jarmusch film that was as cool as its director, that film would be Down By Law.
Jack (John Lurie) is a less-than-successful pimp. Zack (Tom Waits) is an unemployed radio DJ and part time hood. Both are framed for crimes they didn’t commit and wind up sharing a cell in a New Orleans prison, where their schedule consists of card games, occasional moments of laughter, and many petty fistfights. This schedule is interrupted by the arrival of Bob (Roberto Benigni), an Italian tourist with little English and an undying sense of optimism, who manages to plan a great escape, and the three begin a journey through the Louisiana Bayou in search of freedom.
Jarmusch is well known for his use of non-actors in leading roles, particularly in his early work, and in the casting of Waits and Lurie, he really struck gold. Lurie, a jazz musician who played the lead in Jarmusch’s previous film Stranger Than Paradise, does a good job of being the sanest inmate in this particular asylum, and Waits carries his trademark arthritic-drunk posture, one-liners and human-thesauras schtick from his music to the screen with magnificent ease. As the only professional actor among the main characters, Benigni truly shines as Bob, a bright spot in an otherwise run-down world, and Jarmusch mines all the humour he possibly can from the language barrier created by Bob’s lack of English, and the audience’s perceptions of him as a result.
While there is potential for Down by Law to have become a standard fare, entertaining buddy movie, the journey of our ragtag team of jailbirds is not told with the dramatic music, balletic camera moves or fast editing that would be employed in a more conventional film of this type. If there was a “scale of participation” that all directors lie on, with Hitchcock on the far right edge at “participational”, Jarmusch is close to tipping off the left edge of “observational”. His scenes play out in extended, often static long shots, and the little camera movement there is mostly consists of a pan or an inconspicuous tracking shot to follow the characters, showing little concern for whether or not his audience is still following him.
He seems even less concerned about how good his shots look. For Down by Law, Jarmusch enlisted Robby Muller as cinematographer, a man who, with Paris, Texas director Wim Wenders, has crafted some of the most distinctive, grand, and intimate landscapes in cinema history. While the desolate beauty of the Louisianan bayou and the flotsam and jetsam of New Orleans does shine through, Jarmusch seems mostly content to place the camera down at a single point and press “record”. While some will undoubtedly be put off by Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic style, this is where Jarmusch’s appeal lies in: he couldn’t care less if you think his pictures are plain, or if the action is slow. He was once quoted as saying “I’d rather make a movie about a guy walking his dog than about the emperor of China”, and his determination to make the films he wants to make is what has earned his films the title of “cool”.
Much like the character’s themselves, who comment on how they feel they are going around in circles, Down by Law does not feel like it is going anywhere in particular. However, unlike a conventional three-act story that lacks propulsion from one act to the next, Jarmusch intentionally removed any sense of propulsion from the film. Lacking in a particular narrative direction, drive, or urgency, Jarmusch allows us to enjoy the drama and humour of the character’s circular lives, striving for an ultimate goal but not knowing how to get there, and appreciating even the smallest distraction from the mundane as an event… thus condensing and magnifying the very nature of our lives.
However, philosophical implications aside, Down by Law is, at its heart, an enjoyable hour and a half with three interesting guys in an interesting place; and though certainly not the Emperor of China, it’s much more than a guy walking his dog.
* * * * * (Great Movie)
Click here for the first part of this Double Feature