Down by Law (Criterion Blu-ray)
Director - Jim Jarmusch
Cast - John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni
Country of Origin - U.S.
Discs - 1
MSRP - $39.95
Distributor - Criterion
Reviewer - Bobby “Kicking Ass and Staying Through The Credits” Morgan
The Film: 5/5
Jack (Lurie) is a low-rent pimp with high class aspirations who gets set up for attempting to seduce an underage girl into prostitution. Zack (Waits) is an aimless disc jockey perpetually losing his radio station gigs who gets set up for murder when the cops bust him with a dead body in the trunk of a car he was paid to drive. Both men end up sharing a cell in Louisiana’s Orleans Parish Prison. They manage to get along fine for a while but eventually their patience with one another wears dangerously thin. That’s when they get another cellmate: Bob (Benigni), a sweet-natured Italian tourist who speaks little English except for the book of English phrases he used to carry in his pocket. Bob’s infectious optimism unites the three and soon they escape from the prison going by a plan Bob devised from watching a movie. As they make their way through the labyrinthine swamps of Louisiana the trio must figure out where they’re heading and try to stay a few steps ahead of the posse tracking them down, all the while developing a unique friendship that never really makes sense to Jack and Zack.
I may not enjoy every film that Jim Jarmusch makes, but it’s because of Down by Law that I will always give his cinematic work a chance regardless of how I ultimately feel about it. Some cineastes might disagree with me but in my opinion Down by Law is the best movie the renowned independent director has ever done. Next to his existential gangland tale Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai Down by Law is possibly Jarmusch’s most accessible feature, not to mention his only one bankrolled by American financiers (for personal reasons); it has the veneer of a frenetic screwball buddy comedy, but it is in the nature of the filmmaker to cleverly subvert the conventions of a typical farce while keeping the proceedings rooted in reality and reflecting his own cinematic and musical tastes. Those tastes extend to the casting in Jarmusch’s decision to cast musicians/non-professional actors Tom Waits and John Lurie in two of the lead roles. Best known to fans of offbeat music as the leader of the avant-garde jazz fusion group the Lounge Lizards, Lurie had previously worked with Jarmusch, both as an actor and composer, on the director’s first two films Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise. Refreshingly both the director and actor don’t make Jack into the typical brutal pimp character prevalent on screen since the 1970’s; Jack is savvy and headstrong but is unfortunately too damn nice to make it in the pimp trade. His girlfriend Bobbie (Billie Neal) makes no bones about pointing out to Jack that little more than a loser with big dreams. It’s his arrogance that gets him in the trap that lands him in prison. Jack’s attitude and style seem borrowed from an entirely different era, maybe even a different country or culture.
Then there’s Zack, bonded to Jack through mutual failure and lack of respect from everyone around them but a polar opposite in every other aspect of his personality. While Jack is fueled - and blinded - by a misguided optimism, Zack seems resigned to his fate regardless of his innocence. Once Bob enters the picture he doesn’t exactly make his cellmates better people or inspire them to want more out of life, but at least he manages to inadvertently point them in the proper direction. I’ve never been a fan of Roberto Benigni, nor have I ever seen or desired to see any of his lauded Italian comedies or the 1998 seriocomic Holocaust film Life is Beautiful that won the lovable comic actor a highly-disputed Academy Award for Best Actor and temporarily made him the toast of the international film industry, until his botched adaptation of Pinocchio opened to scathing reviews and non-existent business in the States. Benigni is the kind of screen personality who works best when restrictions are placed on his otherwise untethered lunacy, much like our own Robin Williams, and he’s given good co-stars to bounce his warm and energetic presence off of. Much like Waits and Lurie Roberto Benigni has never been as great as he is here playing the well-meaning tourist Bob, the only member of our hapless trio who is actually guilty of the crime he was jailed for. He makes Bob funny without being a buffoon and infectiously enthusiastic without being an annoying pest, a tag his post-Oscar antics would forever get him branded with (and undeservedly if you ask me), and in the process helps us warm up to the otherwise aloof and contentious Jack and Zack. Benigni’s finest moment in Down by Law is his tender fireside monologue about his memories of a mother who used to raise rabbits when he was a child, spoken to himself as his two fellow escapees are at the moment angrily trying to make their way through the endless Louisiana woods in the dark.
Down by Law isn’t a particularly visual film but the film’s many picaresque locations, from the seedy streets of a pre-Katrina New Orleans to the chilly and frightening swamp land our intrepid trio must traverse to freedom, are brought to vivid life by the crisp, stark black & white cinematography of the great Dutch director of photography Robby Muller. Muller, who previously worked with directors as stylistically dissimilar as Alex Cox, William Friedkin, and Wim Wenders, would go on to serve as D.P. on three more of Jarmusch’s features - Mystery Train, Dead Man, and Coffee & Cigarettes. Lurie also contributes a cool music score composed of baroque bayou blues, deflated jazz, and weird and vibrant ambient sounds that imbue the proceedings with a sense of mystery and adventure waiting beneath the swamp water, hiding behind every ramshackle building along the trio’s journey.
Although most of the film focuses on the confused adventures of Jack, Zack, and Bob Jarmusch included some interesting actors, professional and non-professional, in the film’s supporting cast: Ellen Barkin as Zack’s put-upon girlfriend whose tear-stained mascara’d dramatics early on in her sole scene with Waits seems out of place with the usual laidback nature of the director’s films; Louisianan playwright, actor, and dancer Vernel Bagneris as the suspicious character who sets up Zack; Billie Neal as Jack’s tell-it-like-it-is girlfriend, spending her sole dramatic scene naked but without a care in the world; and the late New York stand-up comic and character actor Rockets Redglare, a fixture in indie film through the 80’s and 90’s before dying from a combination of debilitating disorders brought on by years of drug and alcohol abuse in 2001. Two years after his death a documentary devoted to Rockets was released. Benigni’s real-life future significant other (they married in 1991) Nicoletta Braschi features in an extended sequence in the third act as the kindly owner of a European-style roadside café who briefly offers our trio of tired wanderers respite from their troubles and the promise of a prosperous and loving future for Bob, something that is very reflective of Braschi and Benigni’s off-screen relationship.
Criterion’s original transfer for Down by Law, which even by the company’s high standards was a beauty, is given a mighty impressive upgrade for its Blu-ray debut. Muller’s majestic cinematography has rarely looked as good as it does here. The disc’s 1.77: 1 widescreen picture is very clean without making the movie look artificial. The English mono track does an admirable job giving equal space to Jarmusch’s voluminous dialogue scenes and the score by Lurie, which also includes two songs taken from Waits’ 1983 album Rain Dogs that bookend the film. A French mono track is also provided along with an audio introduction from Jarmusch explaining why he allowed Down by Law to be dubbed into another language, something he typically resists doing for his films. English subtitles are included.
All of the extra features presented on this Blu-ray were ported over from Criterion’s 2002 double disc DVD but have been presented in 1080i high-definition, and there are plenty of supplements to go through here.
Kicking things off are “Thoughts and Reflections”, a 73-minute audio interview with “the disembodied voice of Jim Jarmusch” that covers various topics regarding the making of Down by Law. An index has also provided if you wish to skip to a certain topic. The director discusses the origins of the film, his love of music and New Orleans and how they both figured into the narrative, and his personal and professional relationships with his frequent collaborators. This is a very in-depth interview and the closest we’ll get to a Jarmusch audio commentary, so soak it all up.
Cinematographer Muller sits down for a 23-minute video interview recorded prior to the release of the original Criterion DVD. He discusses his working relationship with Jarmusch, how they came to work together for the first time on Down by Law, and his approach to the film’s visual aesthetic and the technical challenges it entailed.
In a section titled “Cannes Film Festival” are a 42-minute press conference for the film when it premiered at Cannes in 1986 featuring Jarmusch, Lurie, Benigni, Braschi, and producer Otto Grokenberger, as well as a 12-minute interview with Lurie conducted for French television during the festival.
24 minutes of deleted scenes are included here but are listed as “Outtakes”. Most of this cut footage was rightfully deleted as they added nothing to the film, but there are some interesting moments to be found including an appearance by character actor Pruitt Taylor-Vince as a contemptuous customer of Jack’s and an alternate ending that goes a few extra minutes beyond the poetic final shot.
A 5-minute music video for a cover of the Cole Porter tune “It’s All Right with Me” performed by Waits and directed by Jarmusch to promote the 1990 AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Blue makes a nice addition to the supplements. The video was filmed in black and white and has a vibe to it reminiscent to the look and feel of Down by Law, making its inclusion here all the more appropriate. Jarmusch also contributes a 2-minute audio introduction to the video explaining how this collaboration with Waits came about.
Running 24 minutes, “Q&A with Jim” is another audio supplement with Jarmusch where the filmmaker answers questions about submitted by fans. The topics range from the proper pronunciation of his last name, his cinematic influences, favorite books, and his feelings about the editing process. The best question comes from an admirer who asks Jarmusch if he could into explicit (or as the questioner calls it, “pornographic”) detail about how Down by Law came to be, and the director makes a valiant effort to recall as much as possible. This feature makes a handy companion piece with “Thoughts and Reflections”.
“Phone Calls” is exactly what the title implies, yet another audio feature where Jarmusch conducts retrospective interviews over the phone with his three stars Waits (29 minutes), Benigni (12 minutes), and Lurie (24 minutes). Each dialogue is spirited and full of fascinating anecdotes and reflections from the film and their specific relationships. Benigni, despite giving the shortest of the interviews, is unsurprisingly the most animated, but it’s a real trip to hear these iconoclastic personalities recall their experiences working on Down by Law.
Galleries of Polaroid test shots taken by first assistance cameraman Jack Anderson and rare behind-the-scenes location stills shot in color by Anderson and key grip Paul Ferrera (a former photographer for the Doors) and a scratchy two-and-a-half minute theatrical trailer close out this exhaustive supplements package .
The disc comes with a booklet containing an illustrated essay by Kill All Your Darlings author Luc Sante and notes about the film and Blu-ray transfer.
By far the best film to date from a daring and uncompromising filmmaker, Down by Law is a sweet, lo-fi comic odyssey that refuses to bludgeon us with an ceaseless assault of juvenile gags and predictable plot turns. Instead it carefully draws the viewer into its intricate spell. It’s a movie I can revisit time and again whenever I need cheering up and Criterion’s masterful Blu-ray, a high-quality upgrade of their fine 2002 DVD release, does right by Jim Jarmusch’s charming, overlooked oddity in every possibly way. This is one of the Blu releases of the year for me. Fans of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Coen brothers’ screwball bluegrass musical O Brother, Where Art Thou should give this gem a shot.