50 Movies for 50 States: Week 19 – Louisiana, Film – Down by Law

Week 19 – Louisiana

Down By Law (1986), directed by Jim Jarmusch, written by Jim Jarmusch, with Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Ellen Barkin and Billie Neal

I’ve always had respect for Jim Jarmusch as a filmmaker, but — as someone who grew up on the flashiness of Spielberg and Lucas — I’ve always found it difficult getting into his films due to their slow pacing. Another problem may be that my introduction to Jarmusch was through his more recent films, not his earlier movies like Stranger Than Paradise and Mystery Train — sort of like if someone’s introduction to David Lynch (a filmmaker I feel is comparable to Jarmusch) was by way of Lost Highway or Muholland Drive rather than The Elephant Man or Blue Velvet. Sure, Lynch’s more recent films are great, but to really get a clear picture of Lynch you need to start from the beginning.

Down By Law was not Jarmusch’s first film, but since it’s set in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the surrounding area and worked for this project, I thought watching it would be a nice way to reintroduce myself to his work. Not only was I intrigued by the setting of the film, I was interested in the film’s story — a postmodern take on the prison escape film or a “fairy tale” of sorts, according to Jarmusch. The teaming of singer-songwriter Tom Waits and Italian actor (and Academy Award-winning actor) Roberto Bengini was just the cream de la crepe. (They put cream in or on crepes, right? No?)

Criterion’s DVD release of Down by Law — in lieu of an audio commentary — contains an hour-or-so-long “Reflections” feature where Jarmusch talks about many aspects of the film. Jarmusch says that Down by Law was conceived as a project specifically for Waits and John Lurie, another musician and friend of his. Jarmusch said he was inspired by The Defiant Ones, a 1958 prison escape film with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as a white and black prisoner who break out of prison but find themselves chained together, forcing the two men — who really don’t care for each other — to get along and work together.

In Down by Law, Waits and Lurie play Zack and Jack. Zack is a disc jockey while Jack is a pimp. Both men share a few common traits. Both are the target of scorn from their significant others and both wind up being set up by the police and sent to prison. Zack is busted after being paid to drive a vehicle from one end of the city to the other. Unknown to him, the car he’s driving has a body in the trunk — he finds that out when the police pull him over and search the vehicle. Jack, meanwhile, is given the address of a woman by a character played by Jarmusch regular Rockets Redglare – a woman who might be interested in doing some ho-ing. When Jack shows up at the motel where the woman is staying, the police burst in the door and he discovers that the “woman” is actually a young girl.

Benigni in Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes

Zack and Jack, who have never met until now, wind up sharing a cell at the Louisiana State Penitentary, located in the bayou of New Orleans — probably the second-best place to build a prison next to the frozen Alaskan tundra of Runaway Train. Zack keeps track of days by etching hash marks on the side of his cell. Zack and Jack generally get on each other’s nerves. They are soon joined by Roberto Benigni’s character named … Robert … who reveals to them that he’s in jail for manslaughter. Robert explains that he killed a man with a pool ball, but that it was in self-defense. Earlier in the movie, Zack actually met Robert briefly where a drunken Zack dismissed Robert as a foreign weirdo — which, to be fair, he kind of is.

One day, Robert tells Zack and Jack that he found a way to escape the prison yard. Zack and Jack don’t really believe him; however, a few scenes later the trio is running through a sewer together.

The group of misfits soon discovers that escaping the prison was only half of the problem, as they are now stuck in the middle of the Louisiana bayou with no idea which direction to go.

I’ll not ruin the rest of the movie, but Robert finds true love. Jarmusch wasn’t kidding when he described Down By Law as a fairy tale.

There’s a lot to like here. Benigni is at his best. There’s plenty of not-so-nice things I can say about Roberto Benigni, beginning with what many consider his fluke Oscar win in 1998. In case you forgot, Benigni won Best Actor that year for his role in the overrated Life in Beautiful, beating a handful of more deserving nominees including Tom Hanks, Nick Nolte, Edward Norton and Sir. Ian McKellen. Then there was 2002’s awwwful Pinocchio. Benigni is an Italian Robin Williams, a motor-mouth whose humor can be measured in jokes per minute with an unusually high number of jokes that fall flat. He’s annoying. I don’t know what it is in this movie … but I have to admit he’s pretty funny here. My favorite scene is an improvised monologue in the swamp where he volunteers to catch and cook a rabbit for Jack and Zack. Considering Benigni spoke very little English at the time this film was made — this was basically his debut to American audiences — his acting here is quite a feat.

Waits’ and Lurie’s reactions to Benigni are hilarious, as if they’re stuck between being annoyed and amused every time he opens his mouth. The two musicians are good in their roles, even if they aren’t playing the most likable characters. Their contribution to the movie is more than just their acting, as both men were responsible for the film’s soundtrack with Lurie doing most of the work and Waits contributing a few songs.

The women all have minor roles and no one performance really jumped out at me. Nicholetta Braschi, an Italian actress, has the biggest part and, in a twist of fate, fell in love with Benigni on the set. They remain married to this day and, after Down by Law, went on to star in many other pictures together including Life is Beautiful, where she played Dora, the wife of Benigni’s character Guido.

Getting away from the acting and characters for a moment, the atmosphere in this film is amazing. Jarmusch says that he believes there are only two cities in the United States that he considers their own “countries” because of their distinctness — New York and New Orleans. In terms of New Orleans, there’s an almost mystical quality to the city and cinematographer Robbi Muller’s camerawork lingers and floats and captures that quality really well. The cinematography is especially striking in the last 45 minutes of the movie, which takes place in the bayou. The black and white and the high contrast make the swamp look like another planet. I know … I’ve probably used that “another planet” metaphor before to describe a movie’s scenery — I’m thinking of my review of Idaho Transfer — but I don’t care. There are parts of this country that are like no where else and Louisiana is one of them. Or so I’ve heard. Or seen. In pictures.

For anyone wanting to see what Jim Jarmusch is all about, Down by Law is a good starting point. It’s pretty well paced. It’s funny. It’s got a story that’s easy to follow. I loathe jazz music — which comprises most of the score. I don’t particularly like Roberto Benigni. In Down by Law, the different elements that I might not have a taste for by themselves actually work together as a whole. That type of harmony is magic — like voodoo. Maybe it’s voodoo … but I like it all the same.

Next week: A Mainestream pick fit for a King!


Down by Law on YouTube

* Trailer

* Clip – “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!”

* Clip – “I have catched the rabbit!”


Matt D.’s Top Five Modern Black-and-White Films

5. Begotten (1990) – Why? Because lack of color totally adds to the “What the shit am I looking at and why is it freaking me out?” feeling of this avant-garde mindfuck. See: My #1 pick.

4. Clerks (1994) – Why? Because black-and-white film stock is cheaper than color and it wouldn’t have gotten made any other way. See: Night of the Living Dead, Forbidden Zone.

2. Young Frankenstein (1974) – Why? Because it’s an homage. See: The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ed Wood.

3. Raging Bull (1980) – Why? Because blood looks really cool in black-and-white, especially in high contrast. See: Sin City, Kill Bill: Vol. 1.

1. Eraserhead (1976) – Why? Because it just wouldn’t work any other way. See my #5 pick.

Honorable mentions: Manhatten, The Last Picture Show, The Elephant Man, Pi.


6 responses to “50 Movies for 50 States: Week 19 – Louisiana, Film – Down by Law

  1. oh, and you’ve got the black and white list pretty well covered. (modern b/w that is.) i’d have to have clerks, ed wood, young frankenstein, night of the living dead, and pi on my list.


  2. Ed Wood was supposed to be on that list. I’m not sure what happened. It’s in my top five favorite movies of all time too. I think I may have bumped it for Begotten, which I included because I wanted something a little more obscure on the list. Still, I should have at least stuck it in the honorable mentions.


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