Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Down by Law (1986)

Seen: On blu-ray on our projector set-up, from our own collection.

You guys I was SO CLOSE to Jarmusch completism but then I find out about Permanent Vacation, which I'd always thought was a student short film or something but nope, it's like a real thing. So watching Down by Law finally was a little less exciting since it's not actually my final Jarmusch. Set in a dingy, grayscale New Orleans, the film details how opportunistic pimp Jack (John Lurie) and unambitious radio dj Zack (Tom Waits) are both set up for crimes they didn't commit and wind up sharing a cell at a nondescript prison. They form a tepid bond despite their clashing personalities, and are eventually joined by chatty Italian transplant Roberto (Roberto Benigni), who also considers himself innocent. The three work together to hatch an escape plan, but aren't really sure what to do next if they actually get out.

Man, Jarmusch is just so good at making his movies cool, you know? Down by Law fits into his typical style- a fairly loose narrative, sprawling conversations, disaffected male leads, and fantastic music. I have been on a Tom Waits kick lately totally just because of the opening song to this movie. After a slow opening establishing Jack and Zack's crumbling relationships with two rad ladies (Ellen Barkin and Billie Neal), the film settles into the main characters just chilling in jail. They're funny, they're grumpy, and they make a lot of faces at Roberto Benigni. It's the kind of movie where not much happens yet you're totally into it anyway, reeled in by the languid black and white cinematography and ambling guitars, and staying for Tom Waits' AMAZING hair and Benigni's cheesy American idioms. These three lost souls come together unexpectedly, form something resembling a friendship, and make it through an unpleasant journey only by sticking together. Everything is just a little bit unreal, with the prison-as-purgatory and bayou-as-walkabout metaphors bubbling under the surface. It's not an especially complicated or varied story, but it's an engaging one thanks to the convincing and endearing performances of its leads, replete with personal tics and unseen baggage and bittersweet monologues. This didn't become my favorite Jarmusch, but I'd say it's up there.

Alsoooo Tom Waits: Cool Guy or COOLEST GUY? I think my answer should come as no surprise.


Pair This Movie With: Well my new go-to for dudes-in-prison movies is Le Trou, soooo that!


  1. Tom Waits: COOLEST GUY! Also I love his hair here, and I'm finally getting into his music. Rad as hell!

  2. Vacation is hard going at times, you should have saved this one for last!