By Max Kath
Jim Jarmusch has always been one of those directors who I tend to avoid. I don’t really know why, I’ve never really disliked any of his movies, and I think he’s one of the most talented directors we have in the American independent film movement, but there is always this twinge of trepidation I get whenever I see one of his movies that is completely unwarranted and usually vanishes after about thirty seconds after the movie has started (save for “Broken Flowers”, that movie just didn’t really do it for me). So when I went to Barnes and Noble with my brother one boring Wednesday afternoon just before the start of the school year I came across a copy of his 1986 film “Down by Law” I was immediately drawn to it, but then almost as quickly turned away from it because of that old feeling again.
Tom Waits is an actor as well as contributor to the soundtrack, John Lurie is an actor and scores the movie, Roberto Benigni speaks in broken English (yes I admit it, I like Benigni). Filmed with beautiful black and white photography, and really catchy dialogue. The film’s plot is deceptively simple: Tom Waits, who plays an unemployed radio DJ, and John Lurie, a pimp, are two men who are set up for two separate crimes and end up in the same jail cell together. There they pass the time by staring and writing on the wall, seldom talking to each other until Roberto Benigni shows up in the same cell and forces the two men to interact with each other. This leads to many wonderful exchanges between the three men, so good that I don’t dare reprint them here because giving them away would be a sin, which eventually leads up to their escape. Once out of prison the three men wonder around aimlessly in a swamp until they find a dead-end Italian restaurant run by a beautiful Italian woman who Benigni falls in love with. After finding the restaurant the three men part ways and the movie ends. Jarmusch does a great job at creating wonderful scenes out of the most mundane things you can think of. He made a very wise decision to shoot the film in New Orleans because the city breathes a certain kind of life into the film that you couldn’t get in New York City (Jarmusch’s home town) or Los Angeles and it also makes the stars seem much cooler by default because of the locations. Benigni is great, and so is Lurie, but my favorite performance comes from Tom Waits. He really knows how to portray the loneliness and heartbreak, from the breakup shown at the beginning of the movie, and all around sadness of a man who is just looking for some kind of connection in the world though he’d rather just drink his problems away. The performances were brilliant. Jarmusch’s screenplay for the film is a work of art all on its own. He constructs amazingly simple scenes: a failed conversation between Waits and Benigni at the beginning of the film, a scene in which Waits’ girlfriend breaks up with him by breaking his record collection and throwing his shoes out onto the street, Benigni drawing a chalk window in their jail cell so they can have something to look out of. These scenes form a whole that can only be described as breathtaking. Another enjoyable part of the movie is the score by Lurie which is one of the most beautiful I have ever heard. It is very subtle jazz that shows up in scenes when it is needed but never overpowers the moment. The movie wouldn’t be quite as good without it.
There are a few pacing issues in the film. Sometimes we are given shots of the characters looking off into space for an extended period of time that become boring, but aside from that the movie is near perfect.
Part of the reason the movie resonates so well is because it does such a good job at showing human beings trying to make a connection to the people around them. We are people who need to have others around to help us through the boring parts of life. My fear of watching a Jarmusch film is completely unfounded and uninformed. The Criterion Collection has put together a very good package with this movie, with some of the most unique features you’ll find on any disc. My personal favorite is a feature where Jarmusch answers questions sent in from fans; these range from questions about how he got the actors to be in the movie and what it was like to shoot in New Orleans, to what his favorite books are and what type of Louisiana cuisine is his favorite. Other features include footage from a press conference taken after the films premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, a conversation with Director of Photography Robby Muller, and a phone conversation between Jarmusch and his three stars. So if you get the chance to see this movie, do. Put it in your Netfilx queue, rent it at Blockbuster, find it at Barnes and Noble and pay an absurd amount of money for it, whatever. Just see this movie.