Z To A: Down By Law (1986)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: When fate lands three hapless men- an unemployed disc jockey (Tom Waits), a small-time pimp (John Lurie) and a strong-willed Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni)- in a Louisiana prison, their singular adventure begins.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

In my mind Down By Law is the quintessential bromance, and although I’ve reviewed other films with male camaraderie (still surprised about The Hangover?), they pale in comparison to this one. Its simplicity unfolds like a fairy tale, colored by its characters: three men unlike any trio I’ve seen before or since.

First off, there’s Tom Waits. That’s kind of a given since I have been a fan of his since childhood. In researching this film it seems he has left the biggest visual impression on people (perhaps because he is the most well known in the cast), but this time around I noted his singular body language, which is languid and reminiscent of a stray dog. He acts like he doesn’t owe anyone a thing, and perhaps that’s what keeps your attention.

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Law was shot the year after Waits released Rain Dogs (1985), one of his most popular and acclaimed albums, and his mannerisms and presentation during that time are different from the Waits we know today- namely, a man who has fully embraced his age and image as a curmudgeon and raconteur. In this case he plays someone down and out like his fellow cast members, Lurie and Benigni, who I’d argue are absolutely as magical as he is, even though they don’t seem to get as much recognition.

To begin with, John Lurie is his own brand of genius. Aside from composing music, acting and painting, he went on to direct and star in the unparalleled Fishing With John (1991) (also featuring Waits). As Jack, a small-time crook full of entitled fantasies and expectations, he comes across both as a dreamer and a complete asshole, in over his head and dismissing everyone along the way. Both he and Zack (Waits) refuse to accept they have this in common, although the film begins with them being questioned and berated by the women in their lives, characters who see things much more clearly.

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To make a long story short, these women become seers. Both Jack and Zack are set up for crimes they didn’t commit and land in prison, trapped in a day-to-day existence of resentment and ennui. They are then joined by Bob (Benigni), an Italian who admits “I kill-ed de man,” although in self-defense. The others stare at him in disbelief, but eventually realize the three of them don’t fully deserve to be there.

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So the issue becomes, “How can we get out?” Jarmusch has no interest in turning this into the usual prison-break film. We never fully understand how they get out, and that’s one of the things that makes Law special- it isn’t so much about explanations as it is about the journey. The mens’ troubles seem real but somehow dream-like at the same time; the circumstances and cinematography reminiscent of It Happened One Night (1934). There are times each of the men end up on their own, having a monologue in which they speak to no one in particular.

The character with the most notable things to say is Bob, who tells a story about how his mother used to kill and cook rabbits, scaring him as a child. To say that no one but Benigni could have made this funny or memorable is an understatement. There is another moment where he rambles in untranslated Italian while waiting to be caught by cops and their dogs, a moment that mercifully ends when Zack returns to save him.

Fortunately Bob gets his fairy tale ending when he scouts a roadside restaurant called Luigi’s Tintop and falls for the owner, Nicoletta (Nicoletta Braschi, who is Benigni’s spouse in real life). She eventually provides a safe haven for the men, but only after Jack and Zack walk in hours later because the other two are too busy conversing and drowning in each other’s eyes. This leads to my favorite line in the film, when an exhausted and confused Zach asks, “What the hell is going on here, Bob?”

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I’m glad I discovered this film the way I did, although I’m sure I would have eventually found it in other ways. I happened to see a still in a magazine, instantly recognizing Waits and Benigni (who I knew from Life Is Beautiful), and to say the least I was thrilled it existed. A few years later I was sticking out like a sore thumb in film school, writing about Jim Jarmusch’s work instead of Tarantino, Scorsese or the virtues of Fight Club (1999).

But Down By Law is where all of this started. I’ve taken comfort in watching it again, even though it ends at a moment in time where everything is uncertain. The realities of what will happen to these three men might be harsh, or perhaps something better. Nevertheless all we’re left with is watching two men switch coats and going their separate ways into the unknown. You can only hope it will turn out all right.

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Here’s to hoping.

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2 thoughts on “Z To A: Down By Law (1986)

  1. Excellent post! Reading your thoughts on this film along with seeing the lovely .gifs had me smiling. I saw Down By Law last year and was instantly drawn to what you refer to as “the quintessential bromance”. Tom Waits should act more often. The dance scene between Roberto and Nicoletta is seductive, charming, and genuine.

  2. Pingback: Z To A: Doubt (2008) | The Holy Shrine

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