Down by Law, released in 1986, was Jim Jarmusch’s third movie. Unlike its predecessors, Permanent Vacation (1980) and Stranger Than Paradise (1984), it did not take off from a semi-documentary view of downtown Manhattan. It was shot entirely on location in Louisiana, which in the context of low-budget independent New York City filmmaking was exotic, even more so than the previous picture’s forays to the forlorn outskirts of Cleveland and whatever derelict stretch of highway stood in for Florida. Here, the location is announced and front-loaded during the credits. New Orleans and its surroundings pass in review, from left to right, etched in crystalline black and white by Robby Müller’s camera: mausoleums, wrought-iron balconies, low-slung housing projects, shacks on stilts. After that, scenes unfold amid semitropical architecture and in the bayous; you hear Cajun accents and Irma Thomas singing, but for all the flavor of filé gumbo, the actual setting is no more Louisiana than the setting of Macao is Macao. Down by Law takes place in the land of the imagination, in the province of the movies.
John Lurie’s Jack, a pimp, seems to hail from film noir. Seeing him in his working duds of suit, dark shirt, and bright tie, you figure he was born somewhere on the frame edge of Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo and acquired his face by studying Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. The fact that Lurie wore the exact same getup in his offscreen role as leader of the Lounge Lizards, a postpunk band that exploited and shredded the conventions of 1950s postbop jazz, and came by his lip from playing saxophone, matters only to the extent that his act was seamless. John Lurie invented “John Lurie,” a figure of unassailable cool who is nevertheless capable of executing pratfalls, a drinker of highballs and driver of Cadillacs who gets his mail at a crud-filled tenement rather than at the Eden Roc, and who barely requires a change of backstory to become Jack.
Tom Waits’s Zack, a radio disc jockey who works under the moniker of Lee “Baby” Sims, is a bit harder to place. Shades of Expresso Bongo collide with images of hobo jungles and cockfight arenas and Okies propelling dead jalopies across the desert by force of will. He is the lone hipster, sceneless except for his invisible audience of the airwaves—he and Jack are, naturally, like oil and water. His hair, a thicket of weeds, is styled by nature; he sank his entire fortune into his shoes, rockabilly gunboats that would set off metal detectors. None of this is at variance with the persona Waits has constructed over the many years of his recording career, and which, at the time the movie was made, had recently taken a turn from its beatnik lounge-act base deeper into dream logic. The character is just as immediately evocative and ultimately unyielding as the two songs from Waits’s album Rain Dogs that bookend the movie.
Jarmusch, as Stranger Than Paradise amply demonstrated, loves the number three. (At one time, he considered making a trio of films set in cities crucial to American music, but after Down by Law and 1989’s Mystery Train, set in Memphis, a third picture, to be set in Kansas City, never materialized.) The Jack and Zack routine needed a third element, which could only be a wild card, and that requirement was fulfilled beyond all expectations by Roberto Benigni. Jarmusch, who had met Benigni—famous as a comedian in Italy but unknown elsewhere—at a film festival, wrote the part for him at a time when neither spoke the other’s language. Benigni, like his character, Roberto, kept a notebook of American idioms; language became the character’s prop. A wood sprite or maybe Pinocchio, he tips the balance of the movie, sabotaging the cutting contest between Jack and Zack and admitting pure, unburdened wonder. He leads the hipsters out of jail and into the wilderness, and ultimately to heaven, although he is the only one who gets to stay there.
You can throw any number of glosses onto the picture. It is an open-ended fable that both invites interpretations and gleefully defeats them. In this and other ways, the movie justifies the clichéd label of “poetic cinema.” Jarmusch has something of the amateur chemist about him—he enjoys assembling diverse ingredients in a flask and seeing how they will interact. This shows up most obviously in his casting. In his early movies, especially, he sought out performers who had established themselves in noncinematic media, and among these he juxtaposed the most wildly contrasting styles. Here as elsewhere, he built characters around the actors rather than shoehorning them into roles, wrote detailed scripts but incorporated improvisations by the players, feasted on happy accidents. Then he set the characters down on terra incognita; by his own admission, he wrote the script of Down by Law before ever visiting Louisiana. He plucked the jailbreak plot from the warehouse of cinematic commonplaces (We’re No Angels comes to mind) and found plain, eloquent locations that combined a budgetary genius with an unerring eye for American archetypes. He hired Robby Müller, whose Dutch sensibility might be considered as lying a pole away from bayou rococo, and assigned him black-and-white stock, which was no more current in 1986 than it is today. Then Jarmusch shook and stirred his ingredients. The result is irreducible, a movie as self-contained as an egg.
Luc Sante’s books include Low Life and Kill All Your Darlings. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2002 edition of Down by Law.