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Down By Law

The Criterion Collection // R // October 22, 2002
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted November 11, 2002 | E-mail the Author

Jim Jarmusch's films all reflect a certain lackadaisical energy that, no matter how much transpires on the screen, there never seems to be much going on. Down By Law, the follow-up to his breakthrough Stranger Than Paradise, features a lot of plot development but the heart of the film is in images of inaction.

The story begins with Jack (John Lurie) and Zach (Tom Waits) each getting caught by New Orleans police in frame-ups. Jack, a pimp, is entrapped meeting an underage new girl and Zach, an out-of-work DJ, gets busted driving a car with some pretty incriminating cargo for a shady associate. Both arrests take place late at night in a deserted New Orleans populated only with the cast-offs that Jarmusch specializes in. Lurie and Waits are both Jarmusch regulars (Lurie starred in Stranger Than Paradise and Waits often provides musical support) and they ease into their very different roles like they're slipping on comfortable suits. They may not really come off as particularly New Orleans-ish (although Zach is a transient radio personality floating from town to town, anyway) but there's a sleepy-town vibe to the characters that fits the locale.

By the time Jack and Zach share a prison cell, (No trials are shown. They go straight to the slammer) the film's atmosphere is set. The next chapter finds the duo growing increasingly irritable as they spend long hours with nothing to do but piss each other off. Eventually they get a third cellmate, one that adds a very different flavor to the mix. In 1986 Roberto Benigni was a total unknown in America, even though he was a huge comic star in Europe. The success of Life is Beautiful was still over a decade away. So for Jarmusch to bring him to New Orleans for his film was a real stroke of genius. His exuberant behavior and liberal use of malapropisms adds a completely different element to the film (Jarmusch tried something similar in Ghost Dog) and immediately sends the film spinning off in a different direction. This sequence includes possibly the most memorable moment in any Jarmusch film: The three men marching around their cell chanting "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!"

Jarmusch shows how much he loves classic American films in Down by Law. He has Benigni's character namedrop some old prison flicks but Down by Law also internalizes them in its stark monochromatic imagery and the texture of the locations. When the trio eventually attempts a prison break Jarmusch doesn't employ an elaborate production but rather sums it up in a couple of shimmering images that could have come from Sam Fuller or Jaques Tournier. His characters are also meditations on classic film characters. Jack and Zach are, on the surface, jaded and cool. They could be tossing dice at Rick's Cafe Americain. But at the same time they are naive and more than a little stupid. Benigni's character, on the other hand, has no idea how clever and resourceful he is. With almost no overt drama these three paint their characters as specific, real people.

Jarmusch's best films use quiet moments to really negotiate out the truth about people. It's almost a cliche to say that a story is really about the human condition (what human condition?) but there is something to the honesty of the folks in Down by Law (and Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train, and Ghost Dog) that surpasses other indie film noodlings. None of his characters are easily pinned down but they are all unmistakably true.

The anamorphic widescreen video here is really beautiful. Some flaws in the print are evident (particularly a vertical scratch that appears at one point) but the elements are mostly in excellent shape and the image is crisp and clear. Robbie Muller's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography has a silky texture that translates perfectly. Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law may both be monochromatic but the latter is the far more nuanced of the two. The shot compositions are perfectly balanced and each frame looks like a gorgeous photo. Criterion's transfer is really something to see.

The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack sounds great. It may be missing some of the 360-degree dynamism of a 5.1 mix but at the same time the sound design does the most with its limitations. Background effects are subtle and effective and the dialog is clear. (Or as clear as the mumblings of half-drunk low-lifes can be.) The film's sounds swing from Waits' raspy grumble to Benigni's wild exclamations to Lurie's quiet chuckles. Overall an excellent sounding track.

A French dub track is also available, notable for the use of Benigni to dub his own voice.

Another track provides a music-only version of the film. While there are long music-free stretches, Lurie's sparse scoring deserves another listen.

English and French subtitles are also available.

This two disc set is really stacked with extras. While Jarmusch doesn't contribute a commentary track, it's clearly a conscious decision, since he does provide lengthy audio commentaries that play on their own. (He's previously nixed running commentary tracks even after they were recorded, so he's clearly not a fan.) His comments (which play over a menu screen) cover numerous topics from casting the film to his stylistic choice and his interviews. He's an entertaining speaker with good comic timing and a droll style. He also contributes shorter comments to other sections of the disc, like on the audio set-up screen he speaks about his objection to dubbing for foreign markets and how Benigni's cooperation was what sold him on doing a French dub. At the end of this bit Jarmusch, whose voice almost never rises above polite conversational volume, launches into an hilarious chop-socky kung fu dubbing tirade. Not to be missed.

The disc also includes a selection of outtakes. These are a welcome addition given how terrific the cast is. Of special note are a few scenes that Lurie called the best acting he'd done at the time but that didn't make it into the film. He discusses these scenes several other places on the disc and it's interesting to contrast these scenes (where his cabin fever manifests itself in some more outlandishly crazy behavior) with the rest of the film's cool exteriors.

Something that Criterion has done before is include footage from the Cannes Film Festival press conference. Here Jarmusch as well as Lurie, Benigni, and Braschi sit before the press. Of particular note is how huge a reception Benigni received. Unheard of at the time in the US, Benigni was a huge European star. It's likely that the film played as a Roberto Benigni movie there. Also from Cannes is an interview with a clearly hungover John Lurie. While the interview isn't particularly illuminating it is made indispensable by the commentary track Lurie provides. 2002 John Lurie watching 1986 John Lurie is a funny thing. He's extremely embarrassed by his sunglasses, his slack demeanor and his stammering statements. For fans of Fishing With John this should provide many laughs.

A music video for Tom Waits' version of Cole Porter's "It's Alright With Me" (recorded for the Red, Hot and Blue AIDS benefit record) is included. The low-budget clip, directed (of course) by Jarmusch, is a lot of fun for Waits fans. As Jarmusch explains on the music video's commentary track (I guess he got over his anti-commentary feelings for this one) he describes how the shoot was meant to be a dry-run but when it came time to do the real shoot Waits was unavailable. So the clip is cut together from the test footage and is the better for it.

The disc also includes phone calls between Jarmusch and each of his three stars. The calls, helpfully identified as having been recorded on low-tech equipment, were made this year and are each extremely funny and entertaining, especially given how well they reflect each person. Waits is cool and composed, Lurie is self-deprecating and Benigni is off the wall. An original and excellent addition.

The disc also includes an interesting interview with cinematographer Robbie Muller. Muller is a quiet, odd man with an almost haunted demeanor. But he's very informative on the development of the look of the film and his take on lighting and the art of cinematography.

Finally, the disc holds a trailer, filmographies and stills.

Down by Law is a human comedy. It doesn't pander with Adam Sandler-style hyucks but it is easily accessible and funny deep down in its soul. Sure, Benigni is a brilliant comedian and Jarmusch gives him ample room to play, but there is more to this film than simple laughs. Jarmusch spends the time it takes to really build his film's atmosphere. His characters are stupid and sad and real. They come straight from everyday life, but in their inarticulate ways they're completely entertaining. The film is heartbreakingly funny. It's almost like watching yourself and laughing at the foolishness in your own life.

Email Gil Jawetz at [email protected]

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