Down By Law (1986)
NYT Critics' Pick This movie has been designated a Critic's Pick by the film reviewers of The Times.
September 19, 1986
FILM: JARMUSCH'S 'DOWN BY LAW'
By VINCENT CANBY
Published: September 19, 1986
JIM JARMUSCH is an American original. He's as singular as ''Bob'' Frost, Sam Shepard and Nicholas Ray, each of whom is evoked - in one way and another - by Mr. Jarmusch's darkly comic, lighter-than-air ''Down by Law,'' which provides the 24th New York Film Festival with a truly festive opening tonight at Lincoln Center.
Like ''Stranger Than Paradise,'' which introduced Mr. Jarmusch to the American public in 1984, ''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.
It's been photographed by Robby Muller in the rich, almost liquid, black-and-white tones that recall films like ''The Big Heat'' and ''The Asphalt Jungle.'' It's about three seemingly expendable misfits - a small-time pimp, an out-of-work disk jockey and an indomitably cheerful Italian tourist, who seems to have disembarked in the wrong country without knowing it.
The setting is contemporary New Orleans, though the city looks as if it had recently been ransacked by Union armies, and the Louisiana bayou country, where chance encounters are as life-enhancing as they are life-threatening in the city.
When first met, in separate sequences, both the pimp, Jack (John Lurie), and the disk jockey, Zack (Tom Waits), are on their way to the slammer, though neither has any reason to know this yet.
Late at night, lying in bed in a sleazy room in the French Quarter, Jack listens without interest as his companion (Billie Neal) quotes her mother's analysis of America. ''She used to say it's a big melting pot, because when you bring it to a boil, all the scum rises to the top.''
More than a little bored, Jack is fair game when a man, whom he has no right to trust, arrives and offers to introduce him to a teen-age ''Cajun goddess'' who'd like to join his stable. The not-so-streetwise Jack trots off to the rendezvous, which turns out to have been set up by the vice squad.
In another bed, in another part of this same forest, the bewildered, out-of-work Zack is being harangued by his girlfriend (Ellen Barkin), at the end of which he says, tentatively, ''I guess it's all over between us, Laurette?'' Out in the street, retrieving his shoes from the gutter (where Laurette has tossed them), Zack is offered an easy $1,000. All he has to do is drive a Mercedes from one side of New Orleans to the other. The hitch is that the car, which turns out to be stolen, also contains a dead man in the trunk.
Jack and Zack are turning into sullen near-vegetables in the cell they share at the Orleans Parish prison when Roberto (Roberto Benigni) joins them. Unlike Jack and Zack, who proclaim their innocence, Roberto freely admits that he did kill the man he's accused of murdering, though it was in self-defense during a card game.
To Jack and Zack, Roberto is not only from another country, but another planet. His English is, at best, random. He's read all of the great American writers (''in Italian translation, of course''), including ''Bob'' Frost. He regards his murder charge only as something of a temporary delay, like bad weather at the airport.
Roberto is part-clown, part-genius. There's something of Papageno about him, especially as played by the irrepressible Mr. Benigni. He's simultaneously pragmatic and sophisticated. It's Roberto who plans the odd trio's successful escape from prison.
No more about the story should be revealed or, for that matter, can be revealed. There's even less ''story'' to ''Down by Law'' than ''Stranger Than Paradise.''
''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.
Early on, Mr. Jarmusch's characters, and the world they inhabit, remind one of the plays of Sam Shepard, but the similarity is superficial. Unlike Mr. Shepard's characters, who have their roots in the theater of Ibsen, Mr. Jarmusch's travel light. They carry very little in the way of historical baggage. Their pasts are unimportant. They take their shapes from their present circumstances, and from the way they are seen by the camera in their environment -mostly at a comparatively cool distance.
Mr. Shepard's Americans have cut themselves loose from the safety of middle-class life, and must come to terms with their sense of dislocation. In ''Down by Law,'' Jack, Zack and Roberto seem to have been classless forever, floating always (as they are seen in the film) off the shore of a foreign land they've never known or understood, where a logical system of rewards and punishments still exists. They give us not the actuality of life but a dream impression.
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, which is funny in itself as well as a wicked pun on ''Bob'' Frost's now somewhat tired ''Road Not Taken.''
''Down by Law,'' which will be shown tonight at 7:45 at Alice Tully Hall and at 9 at Avery Fisher Hall, opens tomorrow at the Cinema Studio and Cinema 2. UP THE RIVER - DOWN BY LAW, written and directed by Jim
Jarmusch; director of photography, Robby Muller; edited by Melody London; music by John Lurie; produced by Alan Kleinberg; released by Island Pictures. At Alice Tully Hall, 7:45 P.M.; Avery Fisher Hall, 9 P.M., as part of the 24th New York Film Festival. Running time: 107 minutes.
This film is rated R. Zack...Tom Waits; Jack...John Lurie; Roberto...Roberto Benigni; Nicoletta...Nicoletta Braschi; Laurette...Ellen Barkin; Bobbie...Billie Neal; Gig...Rockets Redglare; Preston...Vernel Bagneris; Julie...Timothea; L. C....L. C. Drane; Detective Mandino...Joy Houck Jr.