The title Down By Law can refer to the film's three unique male leads, arrested and dumped in Orleans Parish Prison -- but it can also be street slang referring to the unlikely bond they share when plotting a plan to escape and later roaming free. "Unlikely" because at least two of the men would rather bond with anyone else, but when fleeing they've only got each other, and they're going to need each other to survive. The third guy plays monkey in the middle like the comedic child holding two divorcing parents together.
The story feels built from the foundation of Jarmusch's previous Stranger Than Paradise, released two years before Down By Law. It's shot in a similar black and white style with black cuts between many scenes (but not all), and uses silmilarly subdued characters on the verge of nothingness trying to decipher their roles in life and the bad hands they've been dealt. But the film takes greater risks than Strangers In Paradise in roving cameras and tracking shots, exposing the outer garments of New Orleans in the beginning, and later the area bayou in an alligator infested swamp.
A difference, too, is in the film's use of humor -- where Stranger Than Paradise brought curious and delighted smiles to my face, Down By Law, when settled into the story of three convicts caught and later running together, brought big belly laughs from the pit of my gut -- ironic, since I wouldn't consider this a comedy, but I would be hard pressed to suit it to one genre.
It's about a pimp named Zack, a DJ named Jack, and Roberto Benigni as Bob the Italian (who would have guessed). Bob struggles with English, carrying a pad he scrawls words in wherever he goes, and often confuses Zack for Jack and Jack for Zack. The three are forced to spend time together in a cell, where perhaps none of them should even be: Jack was framed, Zack was set up, and Bob's story of throwing an eight ball and killing a man in self defense is as quirky as he turns out to be. "I ham no criminal," he says, in a thick Italian accent. "I ham a good egg."
This was Benigni's first major role, and his comedic presence took Ebert by surprise when writing about the film in '86. This is true Benigni, and if you've seen him and loved him elsewhere, you're sure to fall for him here, too. A jail cell scene where Bob tries desperately to cure his hiccups is quite hilarous, and when he later refers to Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Glass," it's as funny as anything he's done since.
The role of Jack is played by John Lurie (Willie from Stranger Than Paradise), and while I'm new at these Jarmusch films, a quick online scan shows he's in quite a few of the Jarmusch productions. I found him much more believable and approachable in this film.
Tom Waits does double duty providing the musical tracks as well as filling the role of Zack. The DJ can step in front of a mic at a moment's notice and make sense to thousands doing the weather or traffic on the air waves, but he's dumb enough to take a side job driving, getting drunk in the car and failing to check the trunk. He's the greater of the two framed saps, but honestly, if you're hired by a slime ball at $1000 for one drive across the city, it might be a good idea to look in the trunk first. (And not drink when you drive.)
The swampland plays a huge role in the second half when the three stooges escape from jail and wander aimlessly in the muck and woods. I don't know how as children all three dodged the Boy Scouts, but none of them know East from West and they wander in circles like alligator bait.
The final twenty minutes are killer in the most Twilight Zone of ways. No, it's not science fiction. It's much more strange than that. The delicate balance between coincidence and destiny implodes with a comic aura of love, still hanging in the Louisiana air.