Down By Law

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #166: Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law.

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Jim Jarmusch knows how to shoot in black and white. I al­ways for­get this un­til I re­watch some­thing of his. I own Dead Man, and I should prob­a­bly get my hands on this film as well. Shot in New Orleans, over twenty years ago, its cen­tral mo­ti­va­tors are time­less. I’m start­ing to no­tice this about Criterion Collection films, for the most part the prob­lems that are cen­tral to the plots in these films are all of the afore­men­tioned time­less va­ri­ety. The as­pects that qual­ify the film for their treat­ment and give va­ri­ety to the col­lec­tion [which is slightly hu­mor­ous con­sid­er­ing the amount of samu­rai flicks that are present] are the dis­tinct spins that are given to some­thing as ap­par­ently straight­for­ward as a prison es­cape film.

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JJ man­ages this by de­vot­ing a rel­a­tively large amount of the film’s time to the ris­ing ac­tion, be­fore the three main char­ac­ters even ar­rive in jail. Similarly in­spired is his de­ci­sion to leave out many parts of the story that are ei­ther un­nec­es­sary or can be fig­ured out by the viewer. Normally the re­sult of this would be a terse film, but Jarmusch uses the re­sult­ing breath­ing room to ex­am­ine the pri­vate sides of his char­ac­ters.

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This is eas­ier said than done, since John Lurie and Tom Waits pull off sul­len ret­i­cence as if it were nat­u­ral to them. Roberto Benigni acts as a foil to their mis­an­thropy, but also poses a dif­fer­ent sort of char­ac­ter­i­za­tion prob­lem. Jack [Lurie] and Zack [Waits] are too sim­i­lar in per­son­al­ity but dif­fer­ent in ap­pli­ca­tion to get along with each other, but the un­cer­tainty that they hide even when alone comes through in their con­stant fid­get­ing, day-dream­ing and bick­er­ing un­til they even­tu­ally rec­og­nize their kin­dred spirit. Benigni’s char­ac­ter Roberto uses his ex­tro­ver­sion in the same de­fen­sive way that the Jack and Zack use their in­tro­ver­sion; by at­tempt­ing to make friends with every­one and be as ex­pan­sive as pos­si­ble, he tries to hide his un­ease with American cul­ture. All he re­ally does, just like Jack and Zack is make it ob­vi­ous that he has no idea what is go­ing on in his life.

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Their met­tles are tem­pered through the tri­als of their im­pris­on­ment and es­cape, and while they never be­come close, the un­der­stand­ing they gain from one an­other about life and com­pan­ion­ship re­sults in a new pur­pose for each of them. The viewer might not know what that pur­pose is, but the mes­sage is clearly and wryly brought home. We’re all tough enough to get out of what­ever trou­ble we man­age to get our­selves into.

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Criterion Essay by Luc Sante.
• Senses of Cinema ar­ti­cle on Jim Jarmusch.
Images Journal re­view with screen­shots.
• YouTube Clips [1, 23].

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