Disc-ussion; Film follows journey of three ill-fated inmates
Before New Orleans was most commonly associated with disaster and flooding, the Crescent City’s 9th Ward had a rough reputation synonymous with alcoholism, prostitution, gambling and violence. It’s within this setting that Jim Jarmusch casts two rough men and an Italian tourist in his 1986 film Down By Law.
The film begins with sharp black and white pans of old New Orleans and an introduction to Tom Waits’ character Zach, an out of work radio disc jockey whose girlfriend is simultaneously in the middle of breaking up with him and begging him to find another job. Zach’s disinterest and refusal to bow to station managers is indicative of his character, and the next time he’s on screen he changes shoes and stumbles around the street with a bottle in his hand and a song in his head.
Jack (John Lurie) is also quickly introduced as one of his prostitutes psychologically analyzes him while she lies naked in the bed behind him. Her rundown paints him as a small-time pimp who keeps cutting himself short and not taking the people around him seriously enough. She even goes so far as to accuse him of not being a real man since he hasn’t hit her yet, but his heavy concentration on what he’s doing renders him deaf to her insults.
Within the night, both Jack and Zach are coincidentally framed by the police and thrown in prison, though in different ways. One of Jack’s former clients tries to make up for a fight they have by offering him a new girl, who he discovers is a child when the police bust in, and Zach’s friend asks him to drive a car across town without telling him there’s a body in the trunk.
The likeable characters and their somewhat unjust scenarios place our sympathies with Jack and Zach, and stigmatize the law with hints of corruption.
Roberto Benigni’s character Bob is briefly introduced before Zach’s arrest when Zach tells him to "buzz off," but everyone actually meets Bob when he’s placed in the cell with Jack and Zach – who become quickly annoyed that he can’t tell their names apart.
Bob’s Italian accent is thick, and he keeps a small notebook of American sayings that he frequently references when he hears a familiar word. The famous "I scream-a, you scream-a" scene is one of the many hilarious moments that come from his notebook.
Eventually, the trio become friendly and fight less often, and after Bob figures out how to escape (and learns how to pronounce the word), the three pseudo-criminals spend the rest of the film navigating the swamp and dealing with each other outside the confines of three walls and an iron door.
The three wander without a sense of direction – both in the sense of navigation and what they can do with themselves in a world where the sound of barking dogs means going back to prison. They can’t tell East from West, and each wants to either go to or avoid Texas, Mississippi and Arkansas.
The three men come together in the prison and stick together through the escape and up to a point of relative safety, and once again fray and separate from each other at a hypothetical (and literal) fork in the road. It’s the bittersweet moments of sticking together and relying on one another – while telling jokes and sharing stories – that make the separation seem appropriate and necessary. They’re also the moments that make the film so amazing, alongside the soundtrack, photography, acting and excellent script.
The Criterion Collection has released a hefty two-disc set with a laundry-list of features, the best of which are recorded conversations between the actors and Jarmusch, a collection of out-takes with an alternate existential ending, and a Tom Waits music video that was also directed by Jim Jarmusch.