Jim Jarmusch’s third feature (after 1980’s Permanent Vacation and ‘84’s Stranger Than Paradise) Down By Law focuses on three men: Zack (Tom Waits, also lending songs from Rain Dogs), an out-of work DJ; Jack (John Lurie, also composer), a small-time pimp; and Bob (Roberto Benigni, no comb), an Italian tourist.
They don’t belong on the same block, but they end up in the same cell without a say. Zack takes a job transporting a car that just happens to have a corpse in the trunk. Jack is set up as a pedophile by a rival. Bob kills a man. Zack and Jack land in prison first. They disagree, fight, then get comfortable. Months later, Bob comes, a smile as long as Bourbon Street. They disagree, fight, then get comfortable. This is quite a team.
Down By Law works on many levels--it’s a comedy, it’s a drama, it’s a fantasy. As comedy, it’s something of a fish-out-of-water tale where the fish, at times, want to gut one another. Also, Benigni’s mistranslations and hiccups aid one of the funniest turns of the ‘80s. As drama, it’s a story of coping outside of your norm and then deciding which road to take when opportunity springs. As fantasy, there are two telling moments. Early on, Zack insists that there is nothing real inside of the cell, that the bars and bunks are just creations. Later, the trio’s escape plan is hatched without flaw by the one man who can’t speak English.
Down By Law toys with our expectations. It isn’t solely a prison escape movie, no matter what synopses or some promotion artwork might suggest. It’s a portrait of three characters in three sections of one city, dividing the runtime equally between the streets, the cell and the swamps. All of this is captured within the sharp, brilliant work of cinematographer Robert Müller, who, like Jarmusch, Benigni and the film itself, earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
Robert Müller Interview (22:39): Recorded at the Hortus Botanical Garden in Amsterdam, this interview has cinematographer Müller discussing his work and collaboration with Jarmusch.
Cannes Film Festival: Featured from the 1986 festival (where The Mission won the Palme d’Or) are the Press Conference (41:45), with Jarmusch, Lurie, Roberto Benigni, and more, as well as a John Lurie Interview (11:39).
Outtakes (24:11): Jay Rabinowitz, who served as an apprentice editor on Down By Law and has edited all of Jarmusch’s films since 1991, compiled this collection of 16 outtakes.
“It’s All Right with Me” (4:41): Jim Jarmusch directed this video of Waits’ cover of Cole Porter’s classic. Also included are comments from Jarmusch on the video.
Q&A with Jim (24:48): Jarmusch fields a number of fan-submitted questions in this audio-only addition. Topics include pronunciation of his name, Waits not being drunk while shooting, the influence of punk and New Wave, his trademark hair, his favorite books, and the best advice Waits ever gave him (“Never answer a question directly.”).
Phone Calls: In 2002, Jarmusch recorded conversations with Tom Waits (28:45), Roberto Benigni (12:30) and John Lurie (24:20) on the subject of Down By Law.
Rounding out the special features are Production Polaroids, Location Stills and the Trailer.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a booklet featuring an essay titled “Chemistry Set” by critic Luc Sante.