Down By Law (1986)

The second movie in our Jarmuschian journey was, in the end, the best The Boy and I both agreed. We would be a duo for all four of these films, but of the four, this was probably the one we’d most likely recommend to more “normie” moviegoers.

Right?
Thee prisoners playing “Go Fish”. Delightful!

The story starts out threefold: First, Zack the pimp (John Lurie) is tricked into thinking he’s going to get a new girl only to discover that the girl is literally a girl—pre-pubsecent—just as the cops are walking in. Second, drunk and broken-hearted Jack (Tom Waits)—girlfriend Ellen Barkin throws him out after he loses his radio DJ job—takes an offer for a $1,000 to “just drive” a fancy car across town, only to be pulled over by the cops who have tipped off that there’s a dead body in the trunk. Finally, Roberto (Roberto Benigni) is an Italian tourist who we see briefly prior to Tom Waits’ drive, soliciting information on how to speak American phrases properly—information the drunken Waits doesn’t really provide, as you might imagine.

Roberto is the last to come to the jail cell where Jack and Zack have met, and ironically he’s in for a murder which he actually did commit (unlike the other two who were set up). It’s essentially a self-defense situation but still: When a man throws a pool ball at you, you probably should think twice before throwing it back, especially if you’re a really good shot.

Or it's just an average day in N'orlens.
Tom Waits re-considers Ellen Barkin as a romantic option.

Jack and Zack are surly and competitive in weird ways, doing the tough guy prison schtick from day one. Roberto on the other hand is basically unleashed Benigni and he brings a lot of energy and humor to the story that keeps it from being quite as deadpan as the other Jarmusch flicks. For example, he starts a little riff on “scream” which ends up with them chanting “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice scream”. It seems dopey but it raises to the level of a prison riot in a kind of hilarious fashion.

I sort of assumed the rest of the movie was going to take place in the tiny cell the three shared but much to my surprise there’s a second act where they break free from jail and end up floating around the bayou trying to keep away from the law. Jack and Zack continue their weird competition and surly ways with Benigni still vamping hilariously. (Benigni tells a story of how his mom served him his pet rabbit which is apparently a true life story.)

Sounds like a Linda Ronstadt song.
The three actually spend a fair amount of time floating in the bayou.

In the final act, they stumble across (of all things) an Italian restaurant in the middle of nowhere, staffed by a lone, beautiful girl who just happens to be Nicoletta Braschi. Braschi, who would also appear in next week’s Jarmusch flick Mystery Train, is Benigni’s real life wife and was his co-star in Life is Beautiful. So it’s love at first site and surprisingly plausible given the “aesthetic imbalance”. And so Roberto finds a home deep in the bayou while Jack and Zack end up going their separate ways.

It’s the most lively of the films, and beautifully shot (in black-and-white as most Jarmusch movies of the time were). Lurie provides the music again, with songs by Wait. It’s not a tight movie by any means but it is engaging and worth a look. If you don’t like it, you probably aren’t going to like any Jarmusch.

How can you NOT love Benigni?
A happy ending for the guy who probably most deserves it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *