Sunday, August 19, 2012

Prison Break

Film: Down by Law
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

A month or so ago I came out of the closet as a David Lynch appreciator. I’m not sure I’d call myself a fan, but I don’t mind watching his films. I’m going to do something similar right now—I like the films of Jim Jarmusch. Again, I’m not sure I’d call myself a dedicated fan, but I like what I’ve seen and I’d like to see more. There’s a cool aesthetic going on here, and I like what Jarmusch does with his limited budgets, his camera, and how he can make a mainly plotless film like Down by Law so worth watching.

Jarmusch’s work is probably less controversial than Lynch. People who don’t like Jarmusch can often see the artistic value in his work. In fact, I could well understand someone disliking Down by Law. For me, though, there was a certain expectation with this film. I remember seeing a promotional ad for it years ago and thinking I’d like to see it if only for the presence of Tom Waits. That was well over a decade ago, but I never saw the film until tonight.

This film is sort of plotless. There is a story here, but it’s not really about the story. In fact, in several spots, the story is so thin that I can imagine someone not entranced with the style would easily become frustrated. We follow initially two men in New Orleans. Jack (John Lurie) is a pimp who can’t seem to get ahead. Zack (Tom Waits) is an out of work DJ whose girlfriend (Ellen Barkin) is leaving him. Both men are led into shady deals that get them busted. Jack is picked up when he’s offered a new girl for his stable who appears to be well under the age of consent. Zack is given a stolen car to deliver and then arrested at the behest of the man who gave him the job. The two find themselves sharing a prison cell, and it’s evident right away that they don’t like each other.

They are soon joined in the cell by Bob (Roberto Benigni), an Italian tourist serving on a murder rap. Like the others, his charges are trumped up—he was defending himself and accidently killed his attacker. The three play cards with each other and there seems to be a lessening of the tension between Jack and Zack. Bob decides that he wants to break out of prison, and wants the two to come with him.

And this is the major spot where someone interested in the film narrative will have a problem with Jarmusch. Bob suggests that he has a way to get out of prison. He doesn’t tell the others what it is, but suddenly, the three have escaped. We have no idea of how they did it or how cleanly they got away. They’re just out. It’s as if the method of their escape is completely immaterial to everything else going on, and I’d contend that this is exactly the case. Once out, the three wander through a Louisiana swamp. Jack and Zack fight, Bob tries to keep them together, and eventually they come to a house that changes everything for all three of them.

As I said at the start, this film isn’t really long on plot. The three men go to prison, they form a loose sort of friendship with each other that is very tense in the case of Jack and Zack, and they get out together. Down by Law is far more about their relationships with each other than it is about anything else.

What I like most about this film is the dialogue. This is a beautifully written film, with a number of speeches that sound almost like a free-form word jazz or spoken Beat poetry. There’s a beauty to the way the language is used in this film that I find impossible to resist. I’m pulled in and pulled along by it, especially at the start.

These are also excellent performances. Lurie is a Jarmusch regular, and the few Jarmusch films I’ve seen are where I know him from. Roberto Begnini has a stranger reputation—he was on a real high after Life is Beautiful and quickly became a sort of performance joke with his weird romp at the Oscars. For me, the draw is the gravel-throated Tom Waits, who is both a tremendous musical performer as well as an accomplished actor. I’m always happy to watch Waits, especially when what he has to work with is a film like this. There’s something about seeing him in black-and-white that makes him seem more alive. That, and most of what goes on in this film feels very much like it belongs in one of his songs of broken losers and life’s rejects hanging on for one more day before the end.

Down by Law is not for everyone, but it’s very much a film in my wheelhouse. It creates not a plot to be explored or an exciting premise, but lifts up a corner of the world and shows us what the lives of other people are like. It’s just life—nothing fancy or impressive or filled with action. Just people, and sometimes, that’s enough.

Why to watch Down by Law: Thre magnificent performances
Why not to watch: There’s not much plot here, and not much explanation.


  1. Steve, I also just watched Down by Law for the first time, and I had a similar reaction. I expected that Waits would be great (and he was), and Lurie is similar here to Stranger Than Paradise. I was actually surprised by Begnini. Like you say, he's become a joke after the Oscars, and it was nice to see him in an earlier role. He's similar in Jarmusch's Night on Earth, but I'd forgotten about that part until I saw him here. Good stuff.

    1. Yeah, Begnini "Howard Deaned" himself at the Oscars and immediately lost all of his credibility. It didn't help that his follow-up project was godawful. He's capable of a good performance, as this film proves.

    2. Y'all mean the walk over the chairs thing? That's like... my earliest Oscar memory and one of my favorite Oscar moments. I've always felt that was a great and special and loving-life kind of moment.

    3. I'm not sure why it got the scorn it did--my initial reaction was much the same as yours, but a lot of people took it a different way. Public opinion being what it is...

      Anyway, he was probably damaged a lot more with Pinocchio being his next high-profile project.

  2. I first caught this years ago on IFC and it was my first introduction to Jarmusch and his unique style of "story"telling. Very fascinating film, though I much prefer Jarmusch's other works "Night on Earth" and "Dead Man"

    1. I liked Dead Man a lot more than I thought I would. It's a strange film, but totally in Jarmusch's oeuvre.

      Actually, I like everything I've seen of him. I even like Ghost Dog, which seems to split some people.

  3. I've seen this and one other by Jarmusch, Stranger Than Paradise. While I don't say I'm a fan, closeted or otherwise, they didn't completely turn me off either. They are certainly odd little films, with a highly unique viewpoint. I would never really recommend them to others unless I knew that other person's idiosyncrasies inside and out, but I can appreciate what Jarmusch has going on. I think you enjoyed this one more than I did, though.

    1. I've found that I like what Jarmusch does. If I really stop to think about it, he's a top-20 director for me. I'm not sure why I like him as much as I do, because a lot of his films are sort of plotless and rambling, but I do like them.