Criterion: Down By Law, Jim Jarmusch, 1986
The Tom Waits lyric of it’s a “Sad and Beautiful World” originated a Roberto Benigni misunderstanding of the line, but it fit better and they chose to keep it. As it turns out, this line of dialogue encapsulates and can be thought of as a conclusion to the movie. The characters find sadness, misfortune, and beauty throughout their travels.
Down By Law is Jim Jarmusch’s third film, although he would argue that the first one, Permanent Vacation, didn’t count since he was young and had no idea what he was doing. His 1986 effort has a number of similarities with his second film, Strangers in Paradise, which turned out to be his breakthrough. A significant difference is that he had $100,000 to make that film, whereas he had over a million for the follow-up. He made the most out of his money for both movies, as they both look better than most similarly budgeted independent productions of the time. In fact, Down By Law looks far better than many more expensive films. Jarmusch was always good at making the most out of his limited resources, which was a skill that would continue throughout his career.
Like Stranger than Paradise, there are three central characters that become companions based on circumstance and whim. Two of the actors were talented musicians that were popular in independent/alternative music circles. John Lurie was a member of the Lounge Lizards, and Tom Waits was … well, he was Tom Waits – basically an icon of his genre. Both are good actors, and you can tell they have good chemistry together. One of the better scenes with the two was when they are both in a jail cell and Lurie’s Jack gets Wait’s Zack to demonstrate his DJ abilities. To Jack, who was a grimy pimp in New Orleans, being on the radio was another world, and he takes a liking to his cellmate.
Both men are innocent in a sense, victims of a vindictive setup by someone in their life. They had the intent to commit crimes, and Jack’s profession was a criminal. Zack was simply down on his luck and would do anything to make a buck. He encounters Roberto in an early scene, where he is playing music and lamenting being thrown out by his girlfriend. That’s when the “Sad and Beautiful World” song occurs.
Jack and Zack are not the ideal prison cellmates. While they initially find common ground and friendship, that devolves into animosity and anger. They get sick of each other quickly. They fight. Fortunately a new cellmate interrupts their bickering. Roberto is the same person who encountered Zack earlier, although neither of them men make that connection. Roberto is not innocent, but you could argue that he was justified in his crime and that it was self defense.
Roberto, played by the young, exuberant and affable Roberto Benigni that Hollywood would fall in love with 10 years later and then forget in 20 years. He basically plays himself here, an Italian immigrant who has very little command of the English language. Roberto is engaging and plays intermediary between his cellmates. Roberto, a stranger to the country, is the one who initiates action. Jack and Zack have little ambition. It is fitting for their characters that they would later pedal around in circles when Roberto, who cannot swim and is petrified of water, is helpless to guide them. Benigni continues to guide them, even catching food, which at first the quarrelling friends are too stubborn to eat. He is the one who takes the initiative to enter the only building they encounter, while the other two wait outside for something to happen. They are literally lost and out in the woods without him.
Down By Law is a more accomplished and mature film than Stranger than Paradise. It is clear that Jarmusch has learned a great deal in the intervening two years where he first achieved success. The beauty is thanks to the gorgeous Louisiana locations and the cinematography of Robby Müller. He had previously worked with Wim Wenders on his major works, including The Road Trilogy and Paris, TX. As we learn in the supplements, Jarmusch gave him the freedom and respect to shoot as he desired, and the end product was mesmerizing. There are many examples of some great shots, but the one that stuck with me was when the trio are running through a tunnel/sewer that’s light is textured by mirroring shadows of the shimmering water.
Because of the excellent photography, the performances (especially Roberto Benigni), Down By Law is among the best of Jarmusch’s work.
Film Rating: 9/10
Audio from Jim Jarmusch. It is unusual to have a lengthy speaking track on a Criterion disc that is not a commentary track. This supplement has Jarmusch discussing the film with only his picture on the screen. Perhaps he just doesn’t like audio commentaries, as he is a little picky with how his films are represented. At a 1:15 running time, this was a little much to get through.
Robby Muller Interview. He talks about his collaboration with Jarmusch. The only direction he got was that “it’s just a fairy tale” and he made Louisiana his canvas. He was allowed to follow his instincts. One surprising portion of the interview was that, of all the director’s he’s worked with, he has the most respect for Jarmusch. They had a long collaboration, but he has also worked with directors like Wenders, Von Trier, Friedkin, Winterbottom, and others.
Cannes Film Festival Press Conference. This was an interesting press conference because they revealed some details about the film, yet also it was something to see Jarmusch interact with the audience, some of whom asked terrible questions. He said so at times, and refused to answer. One of the most hilarious questions was near the end of the conference. Someone asked whether they felt the film was too long. They also asked whether they felt Paris, TX was too long. The questioner sais that while she enjoyed the film, she fell asleep during the early portion, partly because she had seen numerous films during Cannes. Jarmusch didn’t take the bait about whether his film was too long, and didn’t seem to take offense either. He shrugged it off. As for Paris, TX, he wouldn’t be so bold to re-imagine a work he respected. He said that if anything, he would make it longer, and snipped that “you would have fallen asleep earlier during my version.”
During the interview he sticks to his guns as a true independent spirit. He was not interested in big budget films, and has mostly stayed true to that in the years since (although Only Lovers Left Alive had a large budget). At the time he had already been offered larger budget projects, and had been offered larger budgets for his own projects, but he did not believe in having more money just to have it. He felt the cost should be dictated by the content of the movie.
While a lot of the attention was dedicated to Jarmusch, Roberto Benigni got his share. He was just as as hammy and energetic as we’d see during the Oscars for Life is Beautiful, although his command of the English language was not as strong.
John Lurie Interview. This was a short interview and Lurie looks tired, yet was frank and revealing about how it was on set, and what his career was like. He was offered lots of parts and turned them down, which was fortunate because a lot of them turned out to be bad movies. Like Jarmusch, he had an independent spirit and wanted to work on the right project, whether it was in film or music.
John Lurie Commentary on his interview. It was funny that he even did this. Years later, Lurie did a commentary track for this short interview. “Who is that guy?” he asked. He shows some self consciousness as he reflects on his younger self, and a little bit of embarrassment because he had been up all night when giving the interview and it showed.
Deleted scenes. The majority of these scenes were deleted for good reason. There were only a couple that really added much to anything. There was one where Zack is complaining about being innocent to a fellow prisoner in a nearby cell. The prisoner responds with laughter. “I’m fucking innocent!” he says, although obviously he isn’t. He is mocking Zack, who really was not innocent. He was just set-up.
There was another scene where Roberto is trying to coax Jack back from stewing after a fight with Zack. He had just cooked the rabbit and was using it to lure Jack back. “Buzz off!” Jack says, recalling the earlier scene where Zack says the same thing to Roberto.
It’s All Right With Me. This was a Tom Waits cover of a Cole Porter songs. Jarmusch directed the music video. It was a little more experimental than his cinematic work. It had jarring camera movements with Waits dancing in his own way.
Jarmusch Audio Q&A: This was more interesting than the audio conversation because the questions were better. It was the same format, with Jarmusch’s picture on screen as he talks. We finally learned to pronounce Jarmusch’s last name. Another answer was that Tom Waits was not drunk, which means he’s a good actor. They had some wild times while not filming. Jarmusch laid down the law and wouldn’t let drugs or drink on set, but didn’t try to control what happened off set. Influenced both by French New Wave (Godard, Rivette) and NY Punk scene, which he grew up in, and that shows. He talks about books and music that he’s into, and is very literate, very well read, and ensconced in independent pop culture of the day. This contributes to the quality and cynicism found in his films. He’s a punk, but a smart one.
Telephone conversations: This is more of a novelty, as Jarmusch calls the three leads and records their conversations. Roberto is shot out of a cannon, just like he always is. Hardly spoke English during the filming, but speaks well now. John Lurie and Jarmusch name dropped all the music they saw down there, most of which I’ve never heard of. Jarmusch cannot watch the movie, which may explain why he chose not to record a commentary.
This is a great film and stacked release with plenty extras. The only thing lacking is a commentary. I’m tempted to give this one a perfect score, but I cannot justify giving that to any release without a commentary.
Criterion Rating: 9.5/10