Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law opens with a montage backed by Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon.”
And so the raspy, jumpy tune sets the mood for Jarmusch’s breakthrough film starring Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni as three very different men who meet in prison and become friends (sort of). Panning shots of hearses, dilapidated housing and barren sidewalks are seen in a gritty black and white, the perfect way to watch this offbeat story unfold.
Waits plays Zack, a radio DJ who after getting kicked out by his girlfriend, finds himself wandering under the dark skies of a New Orleans’ night until accosted by an acquaintance to drive a car across town for $1000. Zack ends up getting busted by the police. Prison.
Lurie plays Jack, a pimp whose at odds with his dreams and aspirations to have it all. Accosted by an acquaintance, Jack finds himself heading out to check out what the man describes as the most beautiful fresh talent on the New Orleans scene. When he arrives, all that’s there is a much too young girl and the police. Prison.
Benigni plays Roberto, an Italian that we don’t really know much about. Before Zack is arrested, he meets Roberto, who tells Zack that “it’s a sad and beautiful world,” perhaps my favorite line in the entire film. Zack tells Roberto to buzz off, who incorrectly adds it to his pad of English phrases and sayings. “Thank you, buzz of-a to you to,” Roberto repeats. Instantly, that offbeat and humorous Jarmusch nature is instilled in the dialogue and character interaction. “Good evening, buzz off to-a everybody. Oh thank you, buzz of to you too.” We don’t see Roberto again until he randomly enters prison claiming he killed a man. Yeah.
Key to Down by Law‘s success is Robby Muller, the man helping Jarmusch capture it all. Known for his work with Wim Wenders on films like Paris, Texas, Muller has also shot other stark films I love including Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves as well as To Live and Die in L.A., home to one of cinema’s best car chase scenes ever. Muller turns Down by Law into an interesting, surreal piece of art. It’s not normal, it’s not regular. It’s this kind of dreamy nightmare world of the slums of life, the pain and heartbreak of a world left drifting away by humanity. Muller captures it all painstakingly.
Muller’s patience and ability to shine in a gritty black and white adds to Jarmusch’s capturing of New Orleans, the prison cell and the swamp after the three escape prison. In essence, this is a prison break movie, but Jarmusch focuses more on the interaction between Zack, Jack and Roberto rather than the way they escape. Whereas in classic prison break films like Le Trou, the entire focus is on the painstaking process of a group of guys breaking out of jail. Here, we just see them slide down a rope into the sewers. The real meat of the film is their connection that builds out from an auspicious start that lasts during their struggles to survive in the Louisiana swamps.
Now it’s no secret that I love Tom Waits. But I will tell you that the love I have for him spawned from this very film. When I first saw his cool, subdued and offbeat performance as Zack, the nighttime DJ, and heard his song used in the film’s opening moments, I instantly sought out more of his acting performances and albums. Waits was at the early stages of his acting career here. He had other performances, but I feel this is his breakthrough, just like Down by Law is the breakthrough film for Jarmusch, who would go on to make many more strange journeys through the days and nights.
Jarmusch is no easy filmmaker to just dive into. His work is strange and can certainly feel alienating at times. But those looking for something that certainly sways from strong film conventions would feel right at home with this very minimalistic tale of trouble under a New Orleans night.