When it comes to writer/director Jim Jarmusch, it’s not really about the destination. It’s not really about the journey, either. It’s more about the little moments along the way. After all, life really doesn’t have a plot, no real through line, and it seems that Jarmusch sees no reason to impose that kind of device on his films.
1986’s” Down by Law” captures Jarmusch at the turning point of his career. While still quite a few years away from his most mainstream successes (well, as close to mainstream as Jarmusch ever came), the filmmaker had found the balance between obscure art house reference and a storyteller with supreme confidence in his script, cast, and his own spare style. What can be called an extremely black comedy, in broad strokes, “Down by Law” tells the story of three men locked up in a Louisiana jail and their escape. But that really just sets the scene.
More recognized for “Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai” (1999), “Coffee and Cigarettes” (2003) and “Broken Flowers” (2005), “Down by Law” is unmistakably a film by Jarmusch. The movie is alternately depressing, funny, stark, and occasionally optimistic.
A filmmaker’s true talent lies in the small things, the quiet details. It’s easy to make a film with dump truck editing, a high body count, and ear splitting explosions. It’s hard to make an engaging film with very little money, shot in black and white, and relying mostly on the actors and dialogue, which Jarmusch pulls off. The movie is slow paced, glacial at times by conventional standards, but it is well worth getting to know the characters that populate this seedy world.
“Down by Law” does suffer a little bit from its low budget trappings and an uneven supporting cast, but it more than makes up for it with Jarmusch’s script and the three leads: Tom Waits as Zack, constantly moving and looking like he’s almost ready to twitch right out of the frame, John Lurie as Jack, and the frustratingly effervescent Roberto Benigni as Roberto or “Bob.” Ellen Barkin, long before her late 1990s cougar renaissance–but well before her decade of less than memorable roles–plays Laurette, the girlfriend that tosses Zack out; Nicoletta Braschi, Roberto Benigni’s real life spouse, plays Nicoletta; and rounding out the cast of low-life’s and night people are Rockets Redglare and Billie Neal.
Waits’ Zack is the most engaging presence on screen. Often more known as a reference for the hipper than thou set, Waits has an incredible body of work. He has that unmistakable growl for a voice, a face that the camera doesn’t love but manages to exploit, and a delivery that rotates between hilarious and heart breaking. His presence extends to the soundtrack providing the songs “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and “Tango Till They’re Sore.”