The second film by independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Down By Law stars folk singer Tom Waits (as Zack) and jazz musician John Lurie (as Jack). Lurie had starred in Jarmusch’s debut film, Stranger Than Paradise. The film’s trio of protagonists is rounded out by Italian actor/comedian Roberto Benigni, best known in America for the film Life is Beautiful.
Shot is black in white (with breathtaking cinematography by Robby Müller) and set in Louisiana, the story follows these three disparate characters who happen to end up in a jail cell together.
Zack is an unemployed disc jockey who is thrown out of his girlfriend’s (Ellen Barkin) apartment after a big fight. He is persuaded to take a hot car for a ride across town and is arrested when the cops find a dead body in the trunk. Jack is a pimp who is also set up by another pimp, who lures him to a motel room so he can persuade a new girl to join his brothel. Cops burst in and it turns out the girl is under age.
Zack and Jack barely acknowledge each other’s existence while they cool their heel in a jail cell. Into the mix arrives Roberto “Bob” (Benigni) an Italian tourist who carries around a note pad filled with English expressions. Zack and Jack barely know how to react to Bob but eventually agree to try his plan of escape.
Miraculously, it works, and the three find themselves lost in the Louisiana swamps, with Zack and Jack driven almost mad by Bob’s incessant chatter about American poets, his friendliness, and surprising survival skills.
It’s almost impossible to describe this film. It barely fits into one or even several genres. Jarmusch described it as a “neo-beat-noir comedy,” whatever that means. It’s quite bizarre that Zack and Jack (those names) were both framed, while Bob is actually guilty of his crime (manslaughter). Jarmusch continually upends expectations, which is one of the things that makes his films so interesting to watch. (Bob describes the prison escape as “just like an American movie” when the escape in this film is unlike any other in an American movie.)
Waits is quite good in the film. It seems a shame he hasn’t had a more extensive film career. His gravelly voice, so distinctive in his songs, works here as well, as a perpetual loser who can’t show for a minute that he’s gives a damn about anything. Lurie is also very good—like Waits, he’s got that “I don’t have time for any of this crap” look in his eyes.
Benigni is a perfect foil for both the other actors and characters. He does give a damn, and wants so much to fit in and be liked that he seems like even more of an outsider. Near the end of the film Benigni’s future wife Nicoletta Braschi appears as a character named Nicoletta—who helps bring about a rather wonderful and unexpected fate for these three characters.
Jarmusch had never visited Louisiana before he arrived to make the film. He shot areas that virtually never make it into a film, eschewing the tourist spots and instead concentrating on the run-down areas where these characters would certainly have arisen from.
If you have two musicians in your film it would make sense to have them contribute to the score and soundtrack. Lurie did write most of the music and Waits contributes two songs.
That’s pretty much the only predictable part of this very unpredictable film.