Jim Jarmusch is a hell of a weird guy. When faced with the conventions and techniques of a proper film, Jarmusch, considered the progenitor of the modern independent film, chooses instead to turn around and head in a completely different direction, regardless of whether or not doing so will result in an enlightened bit of surprising ingenuity or the bucking of conventions for no reason other than to do so, especially if said conventions are so because they work. So far, my experience with Jarmusch has been very hit-or-miss, in that I’ve seen two of his films, loved one, and hated the other. Thus, it comes to Down By Law to break the tie, and you know what? I actually liked this one, though it was mainly for one or two reasons in the face of a multitude of other ones that should’ve had me disliking it.
Tom Waits is Zack, a disparaging disc jockey whose girlfriend leaves him at the start of the film. Drinking one evening, he gets rustled into a con job, only to be set up as the fall guy for the cops. Sent to jail, he meets Jack, another rough guy who didn’t commit the crime he got arrested for, and Bob, an Italian immigrant who killed a man in self-defense. Together, they bond, they fight, and they escape, as their relationship is tested as they try to make it to freedom in the bayous of Louisiana. One might think this would be a film akin to other “escape the prison” films like Le Trou or A Man Escaped, but it’s not. For one, the escape itself isn’t actually shown; only the three men fleeing through the sewer is seen. Instead, we get a buddy film, albeit a buddy film with three people instead of two, and where two of the people don’t seem to like each other very much. But, I realized a good ways into the film, that this wouldn’t have worked nearly as well had it stuck to only two of the people involved. This film was so unassuming, just like Stranger than Paradise, that I was almost ready to write it off as a whole as just another of Jarmusch’s “nothing” films. Then the character of Bob showed up, played by Roberto Benigni, and suddenly the film became watchable. The character of Bob is so nutty, so archetypally comedic by nature that Benigni hardly had to put in any effort to make the character what he was, and the film seemed to darken and glower whenever it chose to focus on the burgeoning conflict between Jack and Zack and shove Bob to the wayside. Thankfully, the film realizes this, and keeps the non-Bob involved sections to a minimum after he is introduced. Of course, you still have a good 30-40 minutes of setup involving the other two guys before they go to jail as the start of the film, so you have a little bit of work to get through at first.
Here was the thing with this one; I liked it, but even though I did, I didn’t see why it was on the list. This ended up being another example of me asking the question, upon finishing the film, of why I needed to see it, or even why I should see it at all. Not that it was bad, but that it was so unremarkable in just about every way. Really, if it weren’t for the character of Bob, this film would’ve been very little more than a Stranger than Paradise knockoff, albeit with better acting. But, I guess I should be thankful that I don’t live in a world where this film turned out any different than it did. It wasn’t as wryly enjoyable as Dead Man, but I’d happily chalk this one up in the win column. I’m just not convinced Jarmusch is worth the three slots he has in the Book, that’s all.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10