For some stupid reason or another, I seem to have missed out on Down by Law, the 1986 cult from Wu-Tang Clan fan and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. A fact made even more alarming when it stars a musical hero of mine and renowned Wu-Tang naysayer Tom Waits. Throw in a boat, some bourbon, a hilarious Roberto Benigni and a wisecracking Jarmusch regular by the name of John Lurie and you’ve got yourself a mini masterpiece.
Jim Jarmusch exudes a certain level of cool right from the off with a set of tracking shots filming the barren New Orleans’ landscape filmed from the window of a moving automobile. As if the luscious black-and-white cinematography wasn’t enough, Jarmusch makes this beatnik realm all the more squalid with the addition of Tom Wait’s “Jockey Full of Bourbon” soaking up the soundtrack. Eventually the car fades out and we settle in on a set of characters who are livelier, but only just.
Waits plays Zack, a former late night radio DJ. His scantily clad girlfriend (Ellen Barkin) has had enough of his bummed out lifestyle and throws him out on the street. Changing into his best shoes, he drunkenly wanders around until he is offered a job: to drive a stolen car out of town for $1000, without getting himself, or the incriminating cargo in the car’s boot caught by the police.
Elsewhere in Crescent City, Lurie’s Jack is a small-time pimp headed for the big time. Far from a nice guy, he is unjustly framed by a local business man and arrested for suspicion as a child-sex proprietor. Zack and Jack are thrown into the slammer and shack up in a cell as broken and beaten as their high-flying dreams. As days become weeks, the pair go from brotherly fighting to mutual ignorance, until a third cellmate is thrown into the mix – the Italian tourist Bob (Benigni) whose inquisitive nature and pocketbook of English idioms are set to disrupt the peace.
Plotting their very own ‘Great Escape’ the three flee from prison through the sewers and out into the swamps of rural America, where civilisation is overruled by snakes and alligators. We know that the law is on their tails, but it never feels like they’re in any true danger. This is just another stage in their ongoing journey to the next destination, and the kindling to their unlikely friendship.
Enigmatic figures away from the screen, Waits and Lurie play themselves as macho, grunting beatniks. But Down by Law moments of hilarity come from the spectacularly silly performance from the now-crestfallen Roberto Benigni as the affable and surprisingly practical Bob. Hatching the jailbreak, catching their swap dinner and starting the fire, he injects some life into Zack and Jack and keeps them, and the film altogether, from turning too dour.
Just over twenty-five years young, Jarmusch’s familiar black-and-white style has transcended time and space. But never before have I seen it all look so purely cinematic. The opening in New Orleans presents the extravagant idiots as products of this film-noir world, with cinematographer Robby Müller (Dead Man) making all their ugliness so striking with bizarrely-angled close-ups. Müller continues to amaze by expanding the frame later on with luscious landscape shots of the wastelands our three men in a boat find themselves trapped in.
Much like his Finnish counterpart Aki Kaurismaki, Jarmusch has always been a genre-bender; here idosyncratically mixing a little bit of muted gritty drama, mood piece and bleak comedy. A remarkable third feature, Down by Law doesn’t portray a filmmaker still carving out a niche, but an auteur that had already arrived.