Jim Jarmusch is the quintessential writer/director of American independent cinema to many. His eleven feature films, created over a period of nearly 4 decades, have epitomized the essence of counter-cultural filmmaking against the backdrop of Hollywood commercialism. His directorial approach is both minimalistic and provocative, dealing with the more complex aspects of human behaviour with an almost insipid cinematography approach. This unique filmmaker has not always found success with his method however. Certain films such as “The Limits of Control” (2009) struggled to become embraced by world-wide audiences. His subject matters lean so far towards the world of adult maturity that any younger observers may be put off by such thematic qualities. However Down by Law is no such member of Jarmusch’s less-than-loved works. In fact it could very well be the pinnacle of his earlier career!
Down by Law follows the stories of three misfit individuals, one a New Orleans pimp, one a semi-successful disc jockey, and the other an Italian tourist who speaks minimal English. Each character is arrested for different crimes and placed within a shared holding cell where we as an audience begin to witness a bond that grows between each individual as their stories are told to one another. Eventually all three manage to escape prison and begin a trek across the American Bible-belt with the hope of escaping the reach of the law completely. It is this kind of simple storytelling that only a master such as Jarmusch could convincingly pull off. The high level of directorial patience he exudes into the narrative’s pace would be unbearable for almost any viewer if such performances from its main cast had not been exploited so well. Italian actor/comedian Roberto Benigni, of “Life is Beautiful” (1997) fame, is superb as the small, quirky tourist who has been arrested for manslaughter, the most violent crime out of the three! Tom Waits is outstanding as the manically depressed disc-jockey, hell bent on proving his innocence whilst attempting to acclimatize to his new found situation.
All three main cast members complement each other as the narrative progresses. Sequences that would have felt like hours if shot in any other non-Jarmuschian method quickly become completely hysterical to observe, particularly during the holding cell sequences. The journey that the cast undertakes once on the run becomes just as engaging as the dialogue shared between each man as tensions begin to rise about which direction they should take to escape the police best. It is only at the climax of the film when each characters walks his own separate way do you begin to miss the collective performance that all three of them shared. In fact, you’ll yearn for more interaction between them, more of the shared humour, aggressive misunderstandings, the same comedic misanthropy that hangs over most of the cast’s heads. What we witness is a true acting partnership on screen, with each member excelling their own roles and allowing each other to amalgamate into one metaphorical existence.
Down by Law is pure Jarmuschian cinema at its very finest. The directorial rawness that blighted “Stranger than Paradise” (1984) has disappeared and been replaced with a more refined approach. The emotional pessimism contain in his later works such as “Broken Flowers” (2005) has yet to flourish whilst watching what would otherwise be predicted a thematic prequel to The Shawshank Redemption. Jarmusch takes his auteur-like directorial approach and embraces it with the abilities of three very finely-tuned actors. It’s ending acts as both a bridge and gateway to the middle point of Jarmusch’s later career whilst overall acting as a swansong to the earlier and far more independent works of this daring and uniquely talented filmmaker.