Down By Law (1986) is Jim Jarmusch’s third film overall and his first collaboration with cinematographer Robby Müller and with Italian actor Roberto Benigni. Jarmusch’s direction is strong, favoring long takes, black-and-white stock, and an interest in character over plot, but those collaborators steal the show. Müller invokes a tragic beauty from Louisiana’s landscape and brings a prison cell—where a good portion of the film takes place—to life, and Benigni, who was learning English during filming, gives one of the funniest performances in Jarmusch’s filmography. Benigni’s Roberto speaks in broken English, barely understanding his cellmates Jack (John Lurie) and Zack (Tom Waits), and relies on the actor’s own booklet of English phrases, and yet he brings life and humor to an otherwise dead story.
The film unfolds in three somewhat distinct sections before the denouement. First, we meet Zack, a radio DJ who takes a $1,000 job driving a car across town, perhaps because he’s drunk, perhaps to take his mind off the relationship we see end in the film’s first scene. At the same time, we watch Jack, a somewhat successful but spontaneous pimp walk right into a competitor’s trap. Second, the two meet in jail, and the comedy begins. The two immediately ice each other, but the introduction of Roberto, whose story is too humorous to tell here, leads to shenanigans involving card games, Walt Whitman, and screaming until the three find a way to escape. The last third of the film is their search for civilization, but what is really going on in each section is we are getting to know these three, learning what makes them talk, who the cynics are, and who is satisfied being lonely.
The three fail to reach the level of intrigue that Jarmusch’s characters achieve in his later films, but intelligent framing and Benigni’s humor keep us entertained. Down By Law is far from concerned with the ultimate fate of its characters, a smart subversion of prison drama expectations, but the writing, which shows flashes of greatness (particularly when the escapees find themselves in a familiar-looking cabin), is also not as thought-provoking as later Jarmusch films. He touches on foreignness, as he would do more successfully in Mystery Train three years later, and there is a fantastic line near the beginning of the film about America, but he does not have much to say. Even the humor, while more than welcome, sometimes serves to hide a lack of profundity rather than provide it. Down By Law is more screwball than satire and at times more of a twisted buddy film than an allegory.
But make no mistake; the characters are far from empty. While not especially interesting, it is understood that each was making a pass at something resembling the American Dream, but an obstacle prevents them from fitting in. In the case of Roberto, we understand, perhaps too easily, that his inability to speak English has something to do with it. In the case of Jack and Zack, greed is suggested but not explored. The focus is more on the fact that they dreamt and lost than what they dreamt. The premise, while interesting, is a tad unsatisfying because the fact that they desire is conveyed mostly through suggestions of moving east or west or not at all and a desire to escape prison. Both goals seem related to their fugitive status, and that all three are criminals without a backstory makes it hard to induce very much about them. Regardless, they are mostly sympathetic and, like Down By Law itself, contain a strange allure.