Jarmusch’s “Down by Law” is Cheap Whiskey on the Big Screen


The Trylon’s Jim Jarmusch: No Answers Provided series continues with one of our absolute favorites, Down by Law.

Review by Trylon Volunteer Michelle Baroody.

When Down by Law was released in 1986, Roger Ebert wrote that this “is a movie about cheap whiskey and black coffee, all-night drunks and lost jobs.” While these beverages and occupations rarely make an appearance in the film, they capture its essence—and perhaps the effect of the Jarmuschian film more generally. Down by Law looks amazing. It feels like a series of black and white photographs, as it is pulled together through lovely long takes with a motionless camera; its low-angled and off-centered shots are beautifully composed to capture the heat of each room and the discontent of each character. Cheap whiskey served best on 35mm on the big screen.

Down by Law is an artful take on the buddy genre, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, and bearing all the marks of his aesthetic and mood. The film’s slow and stylized build-up leads to a barely planned, yet successful jail break, where three previously unacquainted men—who are not particularly fond of one another—casually discuss their escape after meeting in a jail cell in Orleans Parish Prison.

Shot mostly in New Orleans, the film begins with a tracking shot of the city, cruising through blocks of two-story buildings with iconic French Quarter balconies to the tune of Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon.” We learn in the first few minutes that two of the men are on the outs with their ladies, and in their vulnerable states, they apathetically make lousy decisions that land them in the clink. Zack, played by Tom Waits is a radio jockey who makes bad career moves, and Jack, played by John Lurie, is a pimp who seems more than disenchanted with his profession. The third, Roberto (or Bob), an Italian immigrant played by Roberto Benigni, is a loud and excitable addition to their cell who speaks in clichés about ice cream and friendship. Zack and Jack are unimpressed with “Bob” until they learn that he may be the only one of them in jail for the crime he committed. The men form an indifferent bond, one that leads them on a trek through the bayou to an Italian restaurant on a dirt road, where they enjoy some pasta and decent night’s rest. The end quite literally brings the men to a stunning shot of “two roads diverged in a wood,” as poetry becomes the reality of their new lives and their new wardrobes (“The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost).

Michelle Baroody is from Chicago, currently in Minneapolis, a graduate student, and the coordinator of the TC Arab film fest. She is quite fond of geriatric cats, coconut oil, and the newspaper.

Down by Law screens Monday and Tuesday at 7:00 & 9:00 at the Trylon microcinema. Purchase tickets here.

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