Down By Law is a 1986 movie written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. The protagonists are two musicians, Tom Waits and John Lurie, together with an amazing Roberto Benigni probably at the peak of his career as a comedian.
This is for me the first great movie by Jarmusch, the first funny comedy that works from beginning to end. Much of the credit goes to Roberto Benigni who’s absolutely unstoppable, he’s pure comic energy! The first half hour, in fact, closely resembles Stranger Than Paradise, with the introduction of Zack and Jack, the characters played by Tom Waits and John Lurie. The first is a failed DJ and the second is a cheap criminal, a pimp, with whom it’s easy to sympathize given the good words spent in his favor by one of the prostitutes he exploits. Both are soon imprisoned for serious crimes they didn’t commit. But then, starting with the prison scenes and the arrival of Roberto (Benigni), the movie changes gear and really becomes amazing.
Roberto, or Bob as he prefers to be called by his two cell mates, is an Italian who hardly speaks English at all and uses a notebook with some useful expressions to communicate. Little by little, he manages to break the ice with the silent Zack and Jack and the three become friends, and later they escape together. The surreal ending with Bob falling in love with Nicoletta (Braschi), an Italian woman found by chance in her uncle’s restaurant in the middle of nowhere, is also full of ideas with remarkable comic potential.
I believe that Jarmusch here made the right casting choice with Benigni. The latter elevates Down By Law to an amazing comedy with a lot of replay value. Every second with Benigni on the screen is worthy of being seen, including the non-comical ones such as when he reveals the reason behind his imprisonment. On the other hand, both Waits and Lurie give life to two characters constituting the perfect comedy partner for Benigni.
Jarmusch limits himself to repeating his style and themes but this time, at his third attempt, he manages to make an amazing film. The movie is in black and white like Permanent Vacation. The protagonists are once again petty criminals, or at least marginalized by society (a thing in common with both Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise). The St Louis setting is poor and dirty and the prison is bleak, therefore Jarmusch once again avoids showing the beautiful side of the USA, even if the Louisiana swamps with their infinite mangroves of the last act have a certain charm. And then the music is once again protagonist, with a finally good soundtrack composed by Lurie and enriched by two wonderful songs by Tom Waits at the beginning and at the end of the film (Jockey Full Of Bourbon and Tango Till They’re Sore).
So why is Down By Law so much superior to the two previous films by the American director? As said, because of the three protagonists (Benigni a cut above the other two) and the perfect chemistry between them, and thanks to a good script. Don’t get me wrong, this movie is full of Jarmusch’s typical nonsense, but the surreal atmosphere only plays in favor of the dialogues spoken in the English/Italian mix (with a strong Tuscan accent).
If I were to advise someone to start watching Jim Jarmusch’s filmography, I would avoid the chronological order and start with Down By Law. This movie showcases the director’s style and demonstrates his great potential, which is the rare ability to make the audience laugh by showing the lives of the outcasts of the American society. Jarmusch’s cinema shows the opposite of the American dream and the director is not afraid to show the crude and cruel side of the USA (for example, the cops in this film are anything but reassuring), but in an entertaining sort of way. Ciao!