Zack (Tom Waits) is driving out late one night on the town when all of a sudden, he gets pulled over by the cops and brought in on a bunch of drugs. They weren’t his, but the cops don’t want to hear it, so they book him and now he’s forced to spend a certain amount of time in the clink. Same goes for Jack (John Lurie), who was also set-up by someone he thought he could trust. Now, he’s sharing a cell with Zack and while it takes some time for them to get used to one another, they eventually become good cell-buddies, joking around, relating and whatnot. Then, in walks foreigner Roberto (Roberto Benigni), who got arrested for a way different charge: Murder. However, Zack and Jack eventually take to Roberto and altogether, they forge a plan to get the hell out of jail and hopefully, on with the rest of their lives. The only issue is that getting out of jail is the easy part – it’s not getting caught and thrown back in the slammer that’s the hardest.
What’s perhaps so interesting about Down by Law is that while it’s definitely a movie about a bunch of inmates, in prison, and trying to escape, the movie is actually not all that about the escape itself. There’s not all that much planning of where someone has to be at an exact point, who’s going to help out on the inside, the outside, and just how every part of the plan is going to go down. Most movies dealing with inmates breaking out detail this at great-length, but for writer/director Jim Jarmusch, it doesn’t really seem to matter.
In fact, it’s the inmates themselves who provide the most interesting story in the first place and it’s through them, that we get to learn a little bit more about the way Jarmusch sees the world. The one thing that there’s no denying about most of Jarmusch’s movies, is that they’re definitely quirky, sometimes, to a fault, but here, he seems to have dumbed that down a bit; Roberto can get a little silly at times, but that’s mostly because Benigni is such a clown, it’s hard not to, at the very least, chuckle at this character. Nope, interestingly enough, Jarmusch gives us a smart, compelling and sensitive character-study about three odd-balls, meeting up in the worst places of them all, and yeah, making something out of it.
In a way, ensuring to us, the rest of the world, that there is some hope for those inmates out there.
Still though, the movie isn’t trying to preach in the slightest; if anything, it’s just giving us a better glimpse into lives of three individuals, who we either don’t always see get their stories told, or when we do, they’re usually filled with drugs, violence and a whole lot of rape. Down by Law is a very different beast in the subgenre of prison movies, but it’s still a compelling one, even if the movie never does take us out of the one single cell that these guys live in. It’s not suffocating, though and it easily could have been – Jarmusch is working with some larger-than-life characters and cast-members that it helps make his movie pop and excite, rather than just drown in its sorrow and misery.
Something that Jarmusch will do in the future for sure, but thankfully, not here.
And yes, with Waits, Lurie, and Benigni, Jarmusch showed his knack for assembling a very odd cast, putting them together, and seeing what sort of odd magic happened. Luckily for him, and especially us, the three all have great chemistry and are more than willing to have us believe in some sort of budding relationship between the three of them. Aside from being together, they’re all very good, too – Waits is cool and bluesy, Lurie is a bit brooding, and Benigni’s as vibrant and wacky as you’d expect him to be, but he is still grounded, so that you do believe in him, as a person, not just another one of his characters.
That said, Down by Law does take a sort of different turn in the last-act and it works, and sort of doesn’t. The movie doesn’t go the conventional route out in ending itself, but by doing that, may have been too subtle for its own good. Jarmusch’s films always seem to have this problem, in that he himself seems to afraid to show any real, big emotion with his characters, that when it comes time for the emotional-button pushing, he backs away. He’d much rather take a hand-shake or high-five, than a hug or kiss, and honestly, sometimes we need that hug or kiss.
Consensus: With a talented ensemble and some of Jarmusch’s snappiest writing, Down by Law is a smart take on the prison movie subgenre, aiming more for character-development, than plot-mechanics.
8 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Generation Film!