I like Jim Jarmusch films and I especially like this film, because it has a scene towards the end where Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi are dancing in front of Tom Waits and John Lurie, and that scene, so sweet and lovely, was used for the poster of Down by Law. The image is one that remains my all time favourite movie poster. I wish that I owned a copy, but I don't. One day, perhaps.
Down by Law is a beautifully shot film about three men, Jack, a pimp, Zack, a radio presenter, and Bob, an Italian card cheat, who end up in prison. The film is not, however, a prison film, not an escape film, and if you go in expecting that, you'll be disappointed. That's if you reach the prison section of the film because Jarmusch's pacing, as always, is a slow burn that never reaches any kind of rush. I don't mean to imply that the film is slow, but rather it's languid, matching John Lurie's (Jack the pimp's) strut/stroll through the streets of New Orleans as he goes to visit the promise of a new whore. He'll never be in a hurry, never rush, because to rush, man, to rush is uncool, just unnecessary, and that attitude is found throughout the film.
If the film is not, then, a prison film, or an escape film, then is it a buddy comedy? After all, you have these three men thrown together by circumstances, and bonding, in their own way. The bonding is done mostly through Robert Benigni's Bob the card cheat, with his limited command of English and always optimistic disposition. It is hard to imagine Jack or Zack returning for each other, as they do in one portion of the film. Yet, however, the film is not really a buddy comedy. There is a bit of it there, certainly, but it is not the main thrust of it.
Instead, there is something of a beat quality to Down by Law. It reminds you of Kerouac's On the Road, a tone that is established in the opening urban landscape, and the free, almost narrativeless direction of the film. At the same time, it reminds you of Charles Bukowski, and his early novels like Factotum and Post Office, but without the unpleasant relationships with women that characterise much of Bukowski's work. The quality of the film the film that connects it to my mind is an almost intangible one, with only the work of authors connected to the Beat movement as touchstones, but yet the film feels at home when placed closest to these.
Could a film with a young Tom Waits be any different?
As I mentioned, it is a beautiful film, shot in black and white by Robby Muller. The landscape of the film is metaphoric in relation to the characters, with the crumbling urban decay of the opening representing much of the characters life at this point. The cabin they encounter on the river after they have escaped is there to convey to everyone that, though they are out of prison, they have not truly escaped. The cabin, looking so much like the cell the three men shared, conveys this meaning. Likewise, the swamp that they become lost in can be viewed as a representation of the internal changes of each in the boat. But even if you do not read this into the film--and metaphorical landscape can be read as such and can be ignored by the viewer just as easily--there's no denying the stark beauty of the film.
Down by Law is a film entirely worth watching, even if you have no love for the actors in it. If only to hear Robert Benigni tell his story about killing a man with a number eight pool ball.
(By the by, the two disk DVD set that has been released in Australia by Madman (and perhaps elsewhere) comes with some neat extras, such as the truly awful Tom Waits music video that Jarmusch directed, and an interview where John Lurie is completely off his face with some kind of drug. Even if you couldn't figure this out, Lurie recorded, in 2002, a commentary track for the ten minute interview, where he basically says, "What the fuck kind of drug was I on?" The best bit, however, is where Lurie mentions having more acting work, and the older man says, "There is no more, boy. There would never be another." Worth the price of admission, that.)