Friday Editor’s Pick: Down By Law (1986)

by on March 24, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri March 30 at 2:00, 7:00 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


More gold in BAM’s Dr. John tribute “New Orleans on Film,” and there may be no better encapsulation of the city’s ethos than Jarmusch’s opening street montage, set to the tune of Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon.”

Dave Kehr for the Chicago Tribune:

The black-and-white images, shot by the great Dutch cinematographer Robby Muller, are immediately seductive. The camera moves slowly through a panorama of an eerie, dreamlike New Orleans, picking out the delicate wrought-iron curves of 19th Century balustrades, slipping by rows of tumbledown houses pitched on stilts, creeping past abandoned factories and storefronts. It`s a lunar landscape, timeless, unpopulated and full of mysterious promise.



Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Jack (Lurie) and Zack (Waits), super-cool no-hopers, meet up in a New Orleans jail. Initially at odds with one another, they are soon distracted by the arrival of Roberto (Benigni), whose pidgin English, memories of old movies, and quotations from Robert Frost in his native Italian keep them both irritated and amused. Finally, however, it is this garrulous and eternally optimistic little man who leads the two self-appointed tough guys to freedom. Jarmusch’s fairytale amalgam of prison movie, noir thriller and offbeat comedy bears some resemblance to his earlier Stranger than Paradise: both are in three parts; both concern jaded Americans transformed by contact with a foreign innocent; both are shot in stunning, sharp black-and-white. And again music (by Waits and Lurie) and mood are essential components to Jarmusch’s poetry. But what makes this more accessible (and perhaps less ambitious) is the emphasis on humour; after the initial establishment of character and atmosphere, the laughs come thick and fast, most notably from the marvellous Benigni. For all the wit and style, however, the film’s most delightful triumph is to demonstrate that ‘Ees a sad an’ beautiful world’.


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

“Down by Law” is a movie about cheap whiskey and black coffee, all-night drunks and lost jobs, and the bad times you can have with good-time girls. It tells the story of a pimp, an unemployed disc jockey and a bewildered Italian tourist and how they escape from jail and wind up slogging through the Louisiana bayous looking for a decent place to have breakfast. It’s like a collage made out of objects from old gangster movies, old blues songs and old jailhouse stories. At the end, it’s like a line of dialogue: “It’s a sad and beautiful world,” someone says. Someone else should say, “Yeah, but so what?
Jarmusch explains that he never saw the Louisiana bayou country before he went to shoot a movie there. What he has seen are lots of movies, and “Down by Law” is an anthology of pulp images from the world of film noir. On the surface, it’s grim and relentless, but there’s a thread of humor running through everything, and that takes the curse off. We are never quite sure that Jarmusch intends us to take anything seriously, and there are times when the actors seem to be smiling to themselves as they growl through their lines. “Down by Law” is a true original that kind of grows on you.



Vincent Canby for The New York Times:

Like ”Stranger Than Paradise,” ”Down by Law” wears a furrowed brow on its long face, which doesn’t initially identify it as a comedy. However, Mr. Jarmusch’s comedies, which might be described as existential shaggy-dog stories, look and sound like those of nobody else making movies in America today.The act of watching one may even be therapeutic: it cleans the mind of all the detritus acquired while responding in the preconditioned ways demanded by most other films. ”Down by Law” is an upper, though you probably won’t realize this at first.
“Down by Law” is a fable of poetic density. It’s so much of a piece that it’s not easy to separate and identify the components that make the movie what it is. The performances by Mr. Lurie, Mr. Waits and Mr. Benigni are extraordinary. However, they wouldn’t exist had they not been photographed by Mr. Jarmusch and Mr. Muller in the kind of deep-focus that permits the three to be on the screen at the same time, in the same frame. In this way they are able to act and react to one another – in a way that just isn’t possible when the camera keeps intercutting between the actors.
The excitement of ”Down by Law” comes not from what it’s ”about.” Reduced to its plot, it is very slight. But the plot isn’t the point. The excitement comes from the realization that we are seeing a true film maker at work, using film to create a narrative that couldn’t exist on the stage or the printed page of a novel.”Down by Law” works on the mind and senses in a completely different fashion. It’s an unqualified delight, from its elegiacal opening shots to to its unexpected last scene



J.D. Lafrance for Senses of Cinema:

Described by the filmmaker as a “neo-beat-noir-comedy”, the opening tracking shots of New Orleans immediately signals an evolution in Jarmusch’s style. No longer content with a static camera, he employed the richly textured black and white cinematography of Robby Muller (who has worked with such gifted filmmakers as Alex Cox and Lars von Trier) that envelops the viewer into the film’s low budget world. Muller uses black and white film stock to not only show the stark contrast and banality of prison, but a lush, more primal side of the wilderness.
Down By Law continues Jarmusch’s fascination with people who live in the margins of life. His protagonists are outsiders who refuse to conform to the 9-to-5 mentality. “All three of them are really outsiders. The view we get of America from all of them is very much outside of the expected one. It’s about people who are outside.” Even though Jarmusch is talking about the three main characters in Stranger, he could easily be describing the three main characters in Down By Law. Like Stranger, this film is more intent on examining people who don’t fit in and who aren’t interested in pursuing the American dream. They are foreigners, in a sense, in their own country.

A typically frank and amusing John Lurie interview:

Jarmusch dials up Roberto Benigni to reminisce:

Harlan Jacobson for Film Comment:

There’s so much surface goings-on in Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, that it’s almost too easy to overlook- or is it simply fail to hear?- what he’s actually written. Jarmusch has fashioned a funny parable that looks at America and satirizes why the country doesn’t work anymore unless you’re an immigrant too ignorant to know what the rules are and that they’ve choked off the “natives’ ” air supply. His American characters are two East Village weasels, set up and busted for all the wrong reasons in a neutron-btimbed New Orleans that’s empty of everything except garbage. In prison they meet up with a cracked Italian, who leads them out of jail, through a swamp, puts them back on their aimless roads, and then settles down to live the American Dream: a house with a picket fence, a yard, and a wife from hack home.
This is a fairly sophisticated, if jokey, vision Jarmusch has perpetrated here, certainly in line with Stranger Than Paradise‘s paean to American stupidity. Perhaps Stranger only seemed to possess more energy because Jarmusch practically invented his own genre, or at least twisted the head off the road genre and poured black blood into its body. Or maybe, like Fellini, he just understands how to impart vision into a simple storyline and suffuse character with what it doesn’t sec about itself. Underneath all Jarmusch’s humor about the out-of-harm’s-way triumph of the funny little guy who doesn’t know enough to know he ain’t entitled, and about the two hipsters’ menial idiocy, is a story about lost purpose. Jarmusch has lost neither his purpose nor his craft, which simply mesmerizes. Momentarily, you think that the swamp walk has gone on too long for these guys to look this clean. But when the little things fail, the mix of character quirkiness, situational improbability, and the look and logic of the world view here keep the seduction in motion. The film more than simply trades on Robby Muller’s stunning black-and-white images. Jarmusch has found a camera rhythm that matches his writing and uses it to perfection. He simply sets up and then juxtaposes the absurd with the expected.
There’s more in a Jarmusch line (“Why don’t you just go back home to New York …or Baltimore… or Detroit- you said you liked it there”) and direction (the choreography of Jack rejecting Zack’s opening conversational gambit in jail is masterful in the way its blocking and camera movement underscore the mutuality of their predicament) than that of almost any American I can think of, except for Martin Scorsese. But now we’re talking Masters and Hellraisers. Jarmusch has crazy fire. And he’s got Rome to burn.


Katherine Dieckmann takes to Jarmusch for NY Talk:

Why did you choose to shoot in the South?

I wrote “Down by Law” to take place in New Orleans because of things I’d read that took place there, and movies in my memory. I’d never been there before I went down to scout for locations. So the film is not all a realistic picture of New Orleans — it’s more like a minimalized abstraction.
How do you feel about the performances in the film, especially Lurie’s and Waits?

It was hard for both John and Tom because of the characters they had to make. When you first meet someone and form an impression of them, when you see what they look like and how they talk, you think, “Oh, I know what this person’s about” – and then you get to know them and discover that your first impression wasn’t all that correct, but you’re still filtering your opinion through it. What we really wanted was to show those kinds of changes. It’s a difficult and delicate thing to do, especially when in the script John and Tom’s characters weren’t all that different from each other. Neither character communicates well with people, and both lack a certain self-awareness. So it was tough to do something that subtle with them. But I think the performances are good for that reason – that your feelings for these two shift by the end.
Was the decision to shoot in black and white made before Robby Müller came on?

Yeah, and that was one thing that attracted him to the project, since he hadn’t shot in black and white since Wim Wender’s “Kings of the Road’ in 1977. Robby is like a painter to me. He’s someone who lights not for the blocking of a scene – like now the actor should step into dramatic lighting – but for what a scene means emotionally. He’d ask me over and over what I felt a scene was really about, and the he’d tell me what he thought, and together we’d figure out how to do it. He lights from the inside out, instead of from the outside in.



Nic Rapold for Reverse Shot:

The teenaged cousin of a French friend said he loved Down by Law because it was thoroughly American, alive with freedom and movement. France was closed, he said; the U.S. and Jarmusch, wide open. Greener-grass suspicions aside, the comment refreshed for me this good old view of America, one usually yoked to the very slam-bang action and bustling small-town communities avoided by the director. One common way of describing this free feel of his films is that they show the moments that stretch between dramatic events instead of the events themselves—a vast complementary firmament. In Down by Law, it seems appropriate that the symmetrical frame-ups of Jack (John Lurie) and Zack (Tom Waits), the most explicitly executed parts of the plot (literally plots, set in motion by hoods as crooked as a dog’s hind leg), fail for them with such finality in this drifting world.
Yet their resulting imprisonment in turn begets a new freedom through their escape, and it’s this sort of interplay between structure and openness that makes the drift of Down by Law so beguiling. The plot follows an almost theatrical three-part structure, from the framing to the jail time to the bayou escape. n the prison cell Jarmusch’s film folds into itself and, avoiding the cinematic expectation to plot escape, enters a realm of pure language, a poetic melting pot. Roberto’s tongue muddles his Z’s and J’s, so Jack and Zack, their fates identical, are now also collapsed into one person. To use Luc Sante’s word in his Criterion essay, the Italian clown uses not just his notebook but the English language itself as a prop, a tool for his earnest desire to connect that renders the meaning itself irrelevant. Short next to Lurie, who wraps himself in a blanket like a prizefighter, Benigni delivers his still-forming lines with the drawl of a toddler working through a difficult word in telling what he did in school. For their parts, Zack voices some alternatives to empiricism (“These walls are not here”), while Jack, with unexpected dry humor, resists Roberto’s linguistic fantasy (“In this case you are looking at the window,” of the drawing on the cell wall). And when it comes to the conjugation of ice cream into potential cellblock revolution, it is, as a friend observed, “like Dada for pimps.”



Jonathan Rosenbaum compares to other works:

Down by Law (1986) repeated certain aspects of Stranger Than Paradise – which brought Jarmusch some complaints — with some significant differences. The film made use of a similar low-life milieu and the same sort of strategic odd-shaped pauses in the dialogue. But the formal and thematic differences were in many cases just as significant as the similarities.
Both movies were fundamentally about freedom and confinement, but the stylistic moves articulating this dialectic were shaped quite differently, and the thematic consequences of this difference were equally marked. The one-take, one-angle-per-scene style of Stranger Than Paradise was jettisoned for a more strategic use of framing combined with deep focus that suggested different perspectives on the same scenes (initially associated with the women living with Waits and Lurie, and later linked with Benigni); Jarmusch used a new cinematographer, Robby Müller, and with him came a more orchestrated and thought-out camera style.
While the convergence of the three characters in Stranger Than Paradise was willed, and their divergence accidental, Down by Law reversed this pattern by landing its three heroes in the same prison cell, and eventually having them go separate ways. Far from being another (albeit male) version of Balint, Benigni was quite the reverse — ebullient and demonstrative where Balint was withdrawn and deadpan. Finally, the fact that Benigni wound up as part of a romantic couple — after encountering another Italian (Nicoletta Braschi) in a cottage in the middle of a swamp — gave the whole film a fairy-tale ambience that was totally absent from Stranger Than Paradise, as well as a kind of optimism that was quite out of keeping with the more absurdist plots of the previous films.


Luc Sante for The Criterion Collection:

Down by Law takes place in the land of the imagination, in the province of the movies. You can throw any number of glosses onto the picture. It is an open-ended fable that invites interpretations and gleefully defeats them. In this and other ways the movie justifies the clichéd label of “poetic cinema.” Jarmusch has something of the amateur chemist about him—he enjoys assembling diverse ingredients in a flask and seeing how they will interact. This shows up most obviously in his casting: in his early movies especially he sought out performers who had established themselves in non-cinematic media, and among these he juxtaposed the most wildly contrasting styles. Here as elsewhere he built characters around the actors rather than shoehorning them into roles, wrote detailed scripts but incorporated improvisations by the players, feasted on happy accidents. Then he set the characters down in terra incognita; by his own admission he wrote the script of Down by Law before ever visiting Louisiana. He plucked the jailbreak plot from the warehouse of cinematic commonplaces (We’re No Angels comes to mind) and found plain, eloquent locations that combined a budgetary genius with an unerring eye for American archetypes. He hired Robby Müller, whose Dutch sensibility might be considered as lying a pole away from bayou rococo, and assigned him black-and-white stock, which was no more current in 1986 than it is today. The Jarmusch shook and stirred his ingredients. The result is irreducible, a movie as self-contained as an egg.


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