Jack, a pimp, ends up in prison when a competing pimp frames him for child prostitution. Zack, a down-on-his luck deejay, is there because an associate paid him a thousand dollars to drive a car across town, unaware of the contents of the trunk. In the same cell, they bemoan their situation: each man innocent of their crimes, but vaguely guilty of something, we’re never sure what. When a third man shows up, an Italian tourist named “Bob,” he seems to brighten the dour men as much as can …e expected.. He’s also very up front with them: he isn’t innocent. He’s there because in a barroom fight, he killed a man with a pool ball. He accepts responsibility for his crime, and seems determined not to live in total misery. Even though he’s the only one who is admittedly guilty, Bob seems the most ‘essentially’ innocent of the three.
Once Bob’s plan works, their escape leads them on a lonesome odyssey, evading dogs in the immense Louisiana bayou, trying to find safe harbor. It doesn’t take long for the three to get hopelessly lost in a tiny boat, no idea where they’re going, and thanks to the ever-encroaching duckweed covering their aquatic tracks, no idea where they’ve been. They can only let fate guide them, trying to keep their sanity, their faith in their effort and their tenuous friendship from sinking into the swamp. Only Bob manages to do so, and he’s rewarded for it. Think of it as a much subtler, much less refined and much more cynical O Brother Where Art Thou.
As a film, Down By Law is a lot of things. It’s well acted, for one. Waits is great as the reluctant “Larry Fine” of the group, a man who thinks he’s in charge, resignedly incredulous at things going on around him. For me, Zack was the funniest character because he’s so understated, like the anti-Bob. Lurie is almost a classic noir character, his jagged face, unwavering cool and two-pack-a-day voice like something out of Double Indemnity. It’s no surprise the part was written for him (as it was for all three stars), because he slithers right into it as if he’d been a small time pimp his whole life. Benigni, when this film was made, was a little known Italian stand up comedian, but he plays Bob with his now-trademark foppishness and flair. In spite of having to be either the comedic pack mule and/or catalyst most of the time, he manages to get in a few authentic quiet moments here and there, showing that he’s actually a good actor, and not the Italian Jerry Lewis.
The movie is also well-photographed in black and white, thanks to Robby Muller. Choosing to film it black and white (Jarmusch’s decision from the beginning) gives it a timeless sort of feeling, like it could have been made in the forties or fifties or even early sixties. He uses the lack of color to the extreme advantage of the film, as the extras will demonstrate, as the characters are the only element the audience ever notices. This minimalism doesn’t mean he can’t paint a pretty frame, though: there’s an absolutely stunning shot of the three men running through the tunnel, lit by the reflection off of water, that’s a masterpiece unto itself.
Yes, Down By Law is well acted, well filmed, well written and well directed…but for some reason, I just never felt like I was 100% connected to it. It floats quietly along, much like its characters, until it’s out of steam and seems to just stop. I understood it, I think, and its implications about the real way to achieve paradise, I just didn’t think it was an earth shattering revelation. It’s almost too vague for its own good at times, as the apparent pointlessness of their search makes the 107 minutes feel terribly slow. That’s the curse of the arthouse film, and why they turn so many moviegoers off: some seem to look down their nose at the viewer. That’s the impression I got at times from Down By Law. How much effort can an audience member be asked for without putting too much of the burden on them? Down By Law might test the limits of some…it did for me. Good, but far from great.
Criterion presents Down By Law in its original theatrical aspect ratio (what else?), which in this case is a 1.85:1 widescreen black and white picture. It’s evident from even the opening sequence, as the camera glides left to right past New Orleans homes and citizens that image fidelity is excellent. The lines are razor sharp, exhibiting only the slightest moire effect as the camera pans. Down By Law isn’t all good news, though: for a modern black and white presentation, it’s a bit disappointing. The main problem is the lack of shadow detail; it’s either mostly white or mostly black, which can be sort of harsh on the eye.. This lack of definition actually helps the story itself, as it contributes to a “forgotten by time” feeling that Jarmusch was trying for, but it must be figured into the score. Minor blemishes appear hither and yon (finally found a place to use that!), but for the most part are negligible. As with all Criterion titles, the menus are appropriately animated.
Criterion has a reputation for staying as true to a film’s roots as possible, and Down By Law‘s audio is a good example of the practice. The disc includes the film’s original audio track, a 1.0 monaural mix. Though I applaud their resolution, it’s tough to really laud a 1.0 track. With no dynamic potential, the main issue becomes clarity, and as one would hope, Down By Law shines. The levels of each element, from the film’s dialogue to its minimal sound effects to its ultra-cool score (John Lurie’s work with songs by Tom Waits), are well-mixed and never overwhelm each other. The digital remastering seems to have eliminated any hiss or pops that might have really cost the score. The fact remains, however, that this IS a 1.0 track, and on a movie post-1985, a “3” is about as high as I’m willing to go.
Since it isn’t accessible from the bonus materials menu, I will mention here that this disc features a fantastic isolated music track. A French dub, as well as English subtitles, support the presentation.
Disc one of the set contains only two supplements. The first is the decidedly vague, 135-second theatrical trailer. The other bonus on this disc is a selection of thoughts and reflections by Jim Jarmusch. Its menu may give the impression that it plays over the film itself, sort of like a commentary track, but that’s not the case here. Instead, the chapters (29 of them) on the menu play audio-only pieces from Jarmusch, I’d guess that the only reason this wasn’t in commentary format is because Jarmusch, whom Criterion credits for his cooperation in the liner notes, expressly asked that no such track be included. On to disc two…
Criterion starts the second disc (the bonus material) of Down By Law with the press conference from the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. It features director Jim Jarmusch as well as Nicolette Braschi, Jim Lurie, Roberto Benigni and producer Otto Grokenberger. It runs almost forty minutes, and it’s…less than thrilling. Most of the participants look annoyed to be there, except for (Who else?) Benigni. Strangely enough, color disappears about ten minutes in (inherent in the master footage according to the menu). My theory is the film was overpowered by the sheer horror of Jim Lurie’s teal shirt.
A twenty-minute interview with luminary cinematographer / director of photography Robby Muller, filmed in 2002, was the next selection I checked out. Of particular interest was his philosophy on camera operation. His confidence makes it much easier to understand how his camera remains artfully outside of the film (never distracting) while still finding ways to intimate the audience and the characters. It’s also fully equipped with chapter indexes.
Outtakes, in this case, are actually sixteen deleted scenes. Without any commentary over them, my guess is that they were deleted for time concerns. Deleted scenes score big points with me. Another major score enhancer is apparently a DVD first: Q&A With Jim Jarmusch. Criterion, through their website, took email questions from their users, and presented them to Jarmusch. On the disc, there are audio-only answers to sixteen of them, some more interesting than others. I’m pretty sure this is a DVD innovation, and for that, Criterion deserves real credit.
Up next is a ten minute interview with John Lurie filmed at Cannes in 1986. As interviews go, it’s pretty bland, until one activates the commentary track he recorded over it in 2002. Speaking of interviews, the disc also includes three phone conversations between Jim Jarmusch and stars Lurie, Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni. I’ve run into these before, and they are always pretty dull. The participants have far more fun recording them than the audience does listening. They each run over ten minutes.
From here, the extras get much shorter, starting with “It’s All Right With Me,” the 1989 music video for a Cole Porter song sung by Tom Waits, directed by Jim Jarmusch. Finally there are behind the scenes photos and ten production polaroids. The latter contain the techincal info for each picture, from film speed to lens type, if one “flips” the picture. It’s strange to see parts of the film in color, which really reiterates what a smart choice it was to go black and white.
Movies like this aren’t easy to compile material on…they’re obscure from the beginning, and this one has grown more so since its release. Once again, Criterion finds a way to come through with a wonderful extras package.
There’s no doubt about it: Criterion’s two-disc release of Down By Law is quite impressive. The digitally mastered audio and video are fantastic (for this kind of film), the extras package copious…but as with many DVD’s, it all comes down to the film. For me, it’s just a bit too wandering, a bit too European. With almost any Criterion title, price is a bigger factor than it is with most other discs. This particular production house’s efforts don’t come cheaply, and Down By Law is no exception, coming in at $40. Pre-established fans will be quick to plunk down the cash, and they won’t be disappointed. Being that this isn’t a “landmark” film like, say, Rashomon, though., such a high asking price makes Down By Law a rental for anyone who isn’t absolutely sure they already have a taste for Jarmusch and his films.
Special Features List
- 1986 John Lurie interview with commentary
- Thoughts and reflections by Jim Jarmusch
- 2002 video interview with director of photography Robby Muller
- 1986 Cannes Film Festival press conference
- Q & A with Jim Jarmusch
- Isolated music track
- Production Polaroids
- Location stills
- Music video