Down By Law

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Luc Sante.
• Sens­es of Cin­e­ma arti­cle on Jim Jar­musch.
Images Jour­nal review with screen­shots.
• YouTube Clips [1, 2, 3].