DOWN BY LAW
Review by Michael Jacobson
John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, Ellen Barkin, Nicoletta Braschi
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Features: See Review
Length: 107 Minutes
Release Date: October 22, 2002
a sad and beautiful world.”
the Q&A section of this DVD, a fan praises Down By Law as a work of
“transcendental genius”. Writer/director
Jim Jarmusch’s reply? “Get a
life.” Ah, artists.
for all the modesty of the filmmaker and the film, Down By Law is a
sublime movie…comically restless and low-key, it borders on existentialism,
but doesn’t cross over mostly because the three central characters aren’t
bright enough to ask themselves the really big questions. Which is fine with me. We
don’t need another Jean-Paul Sartre, but we do need at least one Jim
and Ethan Coen claimed their picture O Brother Where Art Thou? was based
on Homer’s Odyssey, but I’d be quite surprised if it didn’t really
draw at least a little inspiration from this, Jarmusch’s third feature
film. Both center around three
inept outlaws on the run. Both draw
their humor out of the characters and they way they mix and clash. Both have terrific soundtracks (though only one earned an
Album of the Year Grammy).
the picture opens, we are seeing two different but notably parallel lives at
play. Jack (Lurie) is a
down-on-his-luck pimp. He’s
having girl troubles, and ends up accepting a misguided invitation from a friend
that lands him in jail for something he didn’t do.
At the same time, Zack (Waits) is a currently unemployed disc jockey.
He’s having girl troubles (a memorable scene with Ellen Barkin), and
ends up accepting a misguided invitation from a friend that lands him in jail
for something he didn’t do.
they end up in the same cell…a pair of losers-by-choice who of course take an
instant dislike to one another. But
the relationship dynamic isn’t complete until a third party arrives in their
cell…Roberto, or Bob (Benigni), an always-smiling Italian tourist who fumbles
his way through English with a memo pad of mostly worthless phrases.
Bob’s cheerfulness is a stark contrast, and therefore a constant thorn
in the side of, Jack and Zack.
Bob has a plan to escape. “Like
in American movies,” he says. We
don’t see the actual break, but soon, our three intrepid heroes are making
their way through the Louisiana swamps and woods, where they share a few
experiences, and end up amusingly at a crossroads right out of the Robert Frost
poem that Bob quoted earlier. Without
giving too much away, one could say the open-ended finale is perfect for each of
the three men. The eager Bob gets
his chance to live the American dream, while Zack and Jack simply part ways,
with neither of them sure which direction they’re actually going in…just
opposite from one another.
subtle brilliance of Jarmusch, to me, is the way he carefully treads on the
outer edge of familiarity. You
think what you’re seeing is something you’ve seen before, and yet, not
quite. It plays in parts like a
road movie, except there’s no car, or like a buddy movie, except the lead
characters don’t like each other much, or like a prison break film, except
that we never see the escape! Jarmusch
has simply created three amusing characters and allowed them to wander a
landscape of bits and pieces and fractured ideas.
The result is like that big after-Thanksgiving pot of soup…a little bit
of everything left over is thrown in, but in the hands of the right cook, man,
does it taste good!
not a picture that will please everyone…in fact, I’m afraid for a great deal
of our modern younger audiences who were weaned on MTV and mindless action
flicks, the patience simply won’t be there for a movie that takes its time,
enjoys its characters, and isn’t afraid to venture down uncharted roads in an
almost experimental way, to see what, if anything, happens. And for those who lack the capacity to appreciate how much
more beautiful a well-photographed black and white film can be than just about
any color offering, chances are good that Down By Law isn’t for you.
the more you truly love film, the more you’ll enjoy Jim Jarmusch’s
eclectically entertaining offering. As
I mentioned, it’s the kind of film that took the risk that perhaps nothing
would actually happen. Thankfully,
remarkable! I did say that one of
the pleasures of this film is the beautiful black and white photography by
cinematographer Robby Muller, and this Criterion offering, which boasts
Jarmusch’s verbal seal of approval, delivers it with a stunning anamorphic
transfer. The range is stretched
about as far as it can be, with deep, pure blacks and clean, crisp whites, along
with every tone of grayscale in between. Images
are sharply rendered, with extremely good levels of detail offered in both close
and deep focused shots. Grain is
non-existent, and the print itself is in terrific condition…only one brief
sequence in a forest at night shows any sign of residue, and even then, just
barely noticeable. This is one of
the year’s finest black and white DVD offerings…fans should be thrilled!
only a mono track, Down By Law delivers some listening pleasure, starting
with the music by John Lurie and the songs by Tom Waits.
Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and I noticed no distracting
noises, even during the many quieter moments.
A solid effort!
double disc offering from Criterion…how can you go wrong?
You can’t, especially when the filmmaker’s enthusiastic participation
in the DVD release is evident everywhere. Disc
One contains the original trailer, plus a lengthy audio track of Jim
Jarmusch’s thoughts and reflections on the making of the movie.
It’s not a commentary track, as it doesn’t play alongside the film,
but frankly, it works just as well. It’s
informative and enjoyable, and better still, it has been broken down into a
handy index, making it easy for fans to either listen to it in its entirety, or
to look up whichever subjects they most want to hear Jarmusch speak about.
The first disc also includes a nicely rendered isolated music track.
Two boasts everything else, highlighted by a brand new 22 minute interview with
DP Robby Muller and a video of the 1986 Cannes Film Festival press conference
with Jarmusch, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi (co-star and
Benigni’s real-life spouse). I’ve
found these conferences to be terrific historical records whenever Criterion has
is also a Q&A sessions with Jarmusch, where he answers a select group of
queries submitted by the fans themselves. Again,
these are broken down by subject for easy access.
You can also listen in on Jarmusch’s 2002 phone calls to each of his
three stars; Lurie, Waits and Benigni (Benigni, as always, is animated and
overflowing). There are also
outtakes, including an alternate ending, and a 1989 Tom Waits music video for
“It’s All Right With Me”, directed by Jarmusch for the “Red, White and
Blue” AIDS project.
out are production photos and location stills.
This is one terrific package!