Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, Ellen Barkin, Nicoletta Braschi
Director:  Jim Jarmusch
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  107 Minutes
Release Date:  October 22, 2002

“It’s a sad and beautiful world.”

Film ***1/2

In 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.

Yet 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 Jarmusch.

Joel 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).

As 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.

Naturally, 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.

But 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.

The 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!

It’s 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.

But 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, something did.

Video ****

Simply 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!

Audio ***

Though 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!

Features ****

A 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.

Disc 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 included them. 

There 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.

Rounding out are production photos and location stills.  This is one terrific package!


Most Jim Jarmusch fans would be happy just to have Down By Law on DVD in any form, but as usual, Criterion doesn’t settle for less.  They prove themselves once again to be the best friend of serious cinema lovers by delivering a double disc set with a stunningly gorgeous new transfer and features galore.  Highly recommended.