"It's a sad and beautiful world!" notes Roberto (Roberto Begnini) near the beginning of Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law. "Yeah, it's a sad and beautiful world," agrees Zack (Tom Waits). "Now buzz off."
That exchange serves as a kind of mission statement--not only for Down by Law, but for much of the output of writer/director Jarmusch. This was his third film, but his first after the breakthrough success of sleeper hit Stranger than Paradise, an indie smash before there was really such a thing (this was pre-She's Gotta Have It, pre-sex, lies, and videotape, pre-Reservoir Dogs). Stranger so firmly established Jarmusch's distinctive aesthetic that it's all but impossible to write of his early work without calling up the same handful of adjectives: "deadpan," "wry," "poker-faced," etc. His black-and-white pictures focused on losers, cast-offs, hipsters and deadbeats, fringe characters who made peculiar decisions and spoke in colorful if wandering dialogue. He used long takes, frequently with a stationary, locked-down camera; most scenes end with a slow fade.
Like Stranger, Down by Law focuses on three oddball characters: Zack, a sullen disc jockey who's been kicked out by his fed-up lady (Ellen Barkin); Jack (John Lurie), a half-hearted pimp; and Roberto, a cheerful Italian tourist. Their characters are introduced casually, one by one, the first two men via their strained interactions with the women in their lives. One by one, they're set up to commit crimes, and one by one, they go to the Orleans Parish Prison.
In the film's ingenious middle stretch, Jarmusch's intentions are fairly transparent: you get the feeling that he made this movie solely to trap these three men in a cell together, and see what happens. He enjoys their contrasts: Jack the bullshiter, Zack the introvert, Roberto the wide-eyed foreigner, and they quickly establish the rhythms and relationship dynamics of a good comedy team (the Marx Brothers leap to mind without much stretching). Jarmusch alternates his chatty dialogue with scenes of no talk at all--like Zack's first days in his cell alone--giving equal weight to speech and the lack of it. When the dialogue comes, it is conversational and colloquial, but with a Beckettian flair for the absurd; the film's best single speech, Jack's "When I get out of here" daydream, has the vivid imagery of street poetry.
Eventually, the three men escape, and flee through the swamps and back roads of Louisiana. It's interesting, the way Jarmusch handles the logistics of the escape: he basically skips right over them, as he does with other formalities (like their sentencing, for example) that other films would at least acknowledge. But Jarmusch isn't interested in that stuff, and he assumes we're not either--his picture aren't about plot mechanics, but about mood and moments, and he clearly prefers to focus on those (a wise choice; his later film The Limits of Control was almost entirely about logistics, and was a crashing bore). Thematically, the film is very much an extension of Stranger's examination of quiet, hopeless despair; in that film, Eddie notes, "You know it's funny. You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same," and in this one, the trio lands in the bunk-beds of an abandoned home and call it "a little too familiar" to the cell they've just escaped. "Haven't we been here before?" Zack asks later. "We've been going around in circles." In this film, and in his best work, Jarmusch isn't interested in the destinations; he's interested in the journeys, the circles his characters go around in on their way.
Video & Audio:
Criterion's MPEG-4 AVC transfer is a stunner, beautifully capturing the high contrast and medium grain of Robby Müller's photography. Jarmusch talks on the disc about wanting a different kind of black and white for this film than Stranger, its gray, overcast image contrasting to a richer and more defined look, with deeper blacks and more notches on the grayscale. Those blacks and grays are nicely reproduced here; it's a lovely, luminous image.
The English LPCM mono track isn't quite as exciting, but it's clean as a whistle, with the growls and bangs of the Waits songs as clear as the busy dialogue track. An isolated music track and a French dub are also included (Jarmusch pops up here to explain how he normally resists dubbing, and why he did it this time), as well as English SDH subtitles.
Bonus features a-plenty, all of them carried over from the film's original standard-def Criterion release in 2002.
The most in-depth is "Thoughts and Reflections" (1:13:18), an audio-only interview with Jarmusch where he talks about the project's origination, the influence of music, the source of the title, casting, the look of the picture, and other points of interest. His commentary is insightful and intriguing; the only peculiar part of the feature is that his commentary is presented (in 30 chapters) over a single still image of the filmmaker. This would seem like something that could have easily been edited into a standard audio commentary; not sure why Criterion didn't take that route (unless Jarmusch vetoed it).
Next is a 2002 "Robby Müller Interview" (22:39), in which the quiet cinematographer discusses the film and his choices, with illustration of still photos and clips. Sixteen Outtakes (24:11) are actually somewhat mislabeled, at least in this era where "outtakes" means bloopers and cut-ups; they're actually deleted and extended scenes, and pretty good ones at that.
Two more extras come from the film's premiere at the1986 Cannes Film Festival: the festival Press Conference (41:45) with Jarmusch, Lurie, Benigni, Braschi, and executive producer Otto Grokenberger; and a John Lurie Interview (11:39) shot for French television during the fest. As is customary, the presser is a bit of a bore, though Begnini (clearly the crowd favorite) livens things up considerably, while the Lurie interview is of interest mainly because someone had the very good idea of having Lurie do a contemporary Commentary on the interview. First words: "Oh. Oh no. I don't know who that guy is."
"It's All Right With Me" (4:41) is a music video Jarmusch directed in 1989 for Waits's cover of the Cole Porter tune, and it's a peculiar and enjoyable clip with an undeniably Down flavor (as well as some unfortunate SD videography). "Jarmusch on the Video" (2:13) is another audio-only (same still even!) bit of commentary about their collaboration on the clip.
Another audio piece, "Q&A with Jim" (24:48)), features the filmmaker reading questions solicited by Criterion from their viewers, and responding. It's a lot of fun--some of his responses are wry and funny, some genuinely insightful (like his long list of his favorite books). Jarmusch also took the opportunity of the 2002 DVD release to conduct a series of interview "Phone Calls" with co-stars Waits (28:45), Begnini (12:30), and Lurie (24:40). They're decidedly low-fi, but that's part of their charm; they have the informality and warmth of genuine conversation.
The film's original Production Polaroids and Location Stills are presented in viewer-controlled gallery form, and make a fine addition to the bonus features. Last but not least is the original Theatrical Trailer (2:26), which is a moody, funky treat.
Jarmusch's early films are easy to lump together, but there are noticeable tweaks to his aesthetic in Down by Law--he moves his camera fairly frequently (comparatively, at least), but does it only when there's a clear purpose, even if that purpose is merely to set a scene or to showcase Robby Müller's gorgeous cinematography. It's a quiet, peculiar little movie that occasionally jumps at you unexpectedly (Barkin's single scene is a hurricane, and she plays it with a rawness that's almost uncomfortable to watch). It does, it must be noted, drag a bit, and the filmmaker hadn't yet figured out quite how to make his unique style sustainable for an entire feature (he would with his next film, the marvelous Mystery Train). But Down by Law shows him growing, adapting, trying things, and taking risks.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.