Down by Law Reviews
It's a weird trio, but yet, it kinda works. In a way, I don't think this film is fiction, and the actors are basically just playing themselves. It's a free form character driven piece that, among other things, is primarily about boredom. The film is slow, easy going, and spends a lot of time focusing on these guys just sitting around wasting time. It's a prison break film where the mechanics of the escape are never discussed. One day, they just do it.
In a way, I really dug this. I liked the loose, jazzy, beat flavor of it all. It's more polished than Jarmusch's previous film Stranger Than Paradise, but I think I liked that one a little more. I have the ability to sit and enjoy meandering films sometimes, but I think this one went a little too far in that regard, or maybe I just wasn't quite in the mood for this kind of thing when I sat down to watch it.
Also, after a while, Jarmusch's films all end up being essentially the same, with the themes, motifs, style and execution not really changing...kinda like Woody Allen's works. Even then, I can't help but dig this stuff.
We do get some fantastic cinematography from esteemed DP Robby Müller though, and New Orleans, and its surrouning bayous look absolutely gorgeous in crisp black and white. John Lurie's score, and Tom Waits's songs are pretty terrific too.
And so are their performances. As I said, it really feels like they're just playing themselves, and I just in general love how Jarmusch has not only a knack for casting musicians as actors, but getting people that can actually perform in a way that doesn't come off as stunt casting. This was also the film that introduced the west to Roberto Benigni, who wouldn't get mainstream attention until Life is Beautiful, but really got off to a great start here. He's a riot as Bob, even if Jarmusch sometimes lets him run on maybe a tad too long here and there. He does have great chemistry with Waits and Lurie though, and most of their many scenes of bantering about are an absolute joy.
I'm really torn on this one. On one hand, this just feels like a million other Jarmusch films I've seen before, so it's growing old on me, but then again, it's done so entertainingly that, retread or not, it's hard not to give props to. Let's just give it a high B+ and split the stars at somewhere between 3.5 and 4, and call it a day.
Cool is a basic word. And a basic theme. Not only are these scenes written and filmed with a great sense of 'coolness', which translates as the perfect distance between the spectators and the characters, but the two American characters themselves are consistently preoccupied about remaining, at all times, cool.
Jack (John Lurie) and Zack (Tom Waits) live in New Orleans; Jack is a pimp and Zack is a DJ. Both seem to lead lives that could be very torrid, but they are, on the contrary, kind of bored with them. In a very Jarmusch style, they need a change. And they find it traveling, although not quite as they might have expected: both get accused of crimes they didn't commit. They could defend themselves, but they don't, because they just don't care, so they get sent to prison. They share a cell in which their two strong-minded personas clash over and over, until an odd Italian named Roberto -the one real criminal of the trio- gets locked in with them.
Roberto's loud, careless personality gives Jack and Zack a jolt, and puts them in a concealed state of complicity to amuse themselves with him -but not too much, of course. However, soon they find that Roberto has a plan to escape. And so they break out and start a tedious yet hilarious journey across the marshes and dirt roads of Louisiana. All the while wearing suits that read Orleans Parish Prison.
The truth is that Jack, Zack and Roberto don't appear to regard each other very much. They don't show any signs of really caring, except when they're caught up in discussions about absurd subjects. Their journey develops as they make sudden, impulsive decisions about where to go after a fight. These are the moments that can make you laugh out loud: not quite the situations, but the attitudes, their ridiculous efforts to project leadership, and how they always end up getting pulled together into disaster despite their wish to go separate ways.
Of course, by the end, there's a bond between them that many miles of disagreements couldn't possibly have prevented. But the great thing about how Jarmusch depicts this is that he never addresses it directly. It shows by the end in the way they insult each other -they couldn't just all of a sudden engage in a group hug!
Without a doubt, Down by Law has a terrific screenplay. Roberto Begnini has the funniest, most absurd lines, but Jack and Zack's characters have all the necessary bite and self-consciousness -and cool- to become equally engaging characters. However, almost the same amount of credit has to be given to Begnini, Tom Waits, and John Lurie, for their excellent facial expressions, comedic timing, and overall smoothness. Although one could probably guess Jarmusch tailored the characters especially for his friends, it isn't less true that they reciprocated the honor with their best performances.
There's a great deal of talent involved in this movie, combined -fortunately- with elegance and a clear head. John Lurie's music, Tom Waits's songs, and the brilliant cinematography make this film a stylistic gem. It's so helplessly Jarmusch. So helplessly cool. An entertaining story of human interaction, just like Stranger in Paradise, but with a slightly more cheerful, or at least defined, outlook.