Down by Law – 1986 – dir. Jim Jarmusch
It’s a neat trick if the film you’re watching seems sort of so-what for the first hour-plus, then, in a moment, forces you to reexamine everything you’ve seen without actually revealing any new information. I can sincerely say that this is how Down by Law struck me.
The beginning of the film introduces protagonists Zack and Jack (real-life musicians-actors Tom Waits and John Lurie), but not through the common device of characters demonstrating their defining traits through action. Instead, we hear about their failures in the form of their girlfriends’ complaints, in direct exposition: Zack is a radio DJ who’s always getting fired for doing things his way, and Jack is a middling pimp who only lives in the moment.
Soon, they are each set up in separate crimes to get caught by the police, and they meet for the first time when they land in the same prison cell some undefined time later. After some bonding, they are joined by a flamboyant Italian, Bob, who provides a first early hint of a theme that is only fully developed later: By confusing Jack and Zack’s names and pronouncing them almost identically, he obliquely suggests a connection between his two American cellmates.
For most of the movie, however, this idea is only teased at, and instead a variety of interesting shots and moments are strung together. One well-executed effect is the way the time in prison passes elliptically; we can only confirm its passage by the marks on the walls and slight costume changes — a brilliant manner of evoking how surreal life must seem in the joint. Meanwhile, beautiful shots of New Orleans and the bayou create a very specific sense of place, and Bob, played by the inimitable Roberto Benigni, adds color with his charming accent, lyrical take on reality, and fascinating hair. This is all to the good, but by the time the trio escapes prison, somewhere past the halfway mark of the movie, it is clear that we are being denied any conventional manner of storytelling. Instead of a prison break film, we’re just being given a raw, unprocessed slice of life that happens to include it.
It doesn’t help that little identification with the characters is fomented. Director Jim Jarmusch noted in his commentary for the Criterion Collection edition of Down by Law that he avoided any point-of-view shots in the film so the audience would be “observational, almost voyeuristic.” And it’s true: The film doesn’t make its protagonists easy to enter in any kind of psychological way, since Zack and Jack are sort of blank slates, with only the early comments from their girlfriends to give us any sense of their inner conflicts or states.
And Down by Law isn’t much sociological, either, even though it would have been easy to make the film about the gritty social reality of city and the Louisiana bayou. There are already lots of lingering shots of built and unbuilt environment of the state, and Robert Muller’s cinematography makes it vivid, even in black and white. But the time spent dawdling in prison and on the lam don’t really have much comment on prison as a system or class as an issue, and Jarmusch even dampens the reality of the film by allowing it to develop what he called a “fairy tale” aspect. The breakout scene, for one, almost seems to have been edited incorrectly; the three go from cell to underground tunnel, with next to no story exposition — visual or verbal — on the mechanics. Later, Bob’s implausible good fortune pushes the movie a bit further into fantasy.
And so the movie kind of appears to be missing a solid reason for being. But, in watching, I found that it was only in the last scene that the great thematic issue of the movie really emerges. As Zack and Jack wander off into the horizon, each on their own road, in almost perfect visual mirror images of one another, the strong but nebulous link between the two finally becomes the central matter of the whole work.
It’s the culmination of many small points that in and of themselves almost fail to register. At the outset of the movie, a shot showing Jack’s girlfriend lying in bed and opening her eyes just as the film cuts away is followed shortly by a shot of Zack’s girlfriend doing the same, with the same strange cut after she opens her eyes. In another subtle way of equating Jack and Zack, Bob only passes briefly through Zack’s pre-prison story, and so the Italian is differentiated from the other two, who share similar screen time from the beginning. And, once in prison, Jack and Zack explain themselves to Bob with almost the same words, and make a point of how they were framed, while Bob cheerfully admits to murder. (In a nice reversal of expectation, though they both have a more unfeeling, taciturn way about them than the cheery Bob, they are relatively innocent, while it is the goofy Italian who is proud of the murder he committed.) Later, after a fight in the forest, Zack and Jack both stalk off, but the framing of them almost makes it look as though they are walking together, each of them literally talking to himself but perhaps, also, to his unseen friend.
The detail that makes the connection between them inescapable, however, is Robert Frost’s classic poem, “The Road Not Taken,” which makes a minor appearance when Bob recites a fragment in Italian. Later the poem will be literally recreated, where Jack and Zack take two paths, each making one of the binary options set up in verse: The narrator of the poem can now be both the man who took “the road less traveled” and the one who took the road not taken.
The play of identity and connection here is much subtler than it would be in most other films, which often represent split identity expressly. Usually psychology, science, or mere ambiguity are used to effect a literal division or multiplication: David Lynch is known for the ambiguity in movies like Lost Highway, which simply breaks the rules of logic; Black Swan showed the visions of a fractured personality projecting itself everywhere; and a sci-fi adventure like Avatar uses technology to divide or copy selves and so articulate identity issues. The 2002 French film Man on the Train is maybe the closest in theme to Down by Law, musing on the choices people make in life and creating identity confusion between its two leads. In all of these other films, identity is taken up explicitly, whereas Jarmusch has constructed his to present itself as a prison escape film, but failing to be that — or any other kind of movie — the bread crumbs it has judiciously left out finally coalesce into the center of the film and make some sort of comment on identity, or at least amity.
So, what to make of that connection? Jarmusch explains in his commentary that “down by law” is a term that means one is bonded to another, often by having done time with them. So are Zack and Jack only connected by the time they did together, or by some more profound fate? I haven’t a clue.