Any film that starts with any song from Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs,” especially Jockey Full of Bourbon though, has got to be a pretty rock n’ roll film. That’s what I thought, anyway, when Down by Law (1986) started. Dolly shots, going right to left, shot in beautifully creamy black and white, give a sense of the location we’re in. It’s pretty at times, it’s empty, it’s a little sketchy, cops have some people pulled over, then we see the famous architecture that is New Orleans. Cut in with these dolly shots, are shots of Tom Waits going to his home and slipping into bed with his girlfriend, and John Lurie is in bed with his girlfriend (but gets up and asks a girl what she’s doing on the porch, I don’t think the girl ever comes back but she has the second line in the film.)
And thus! Character introductions. Men who have problems. Tom Waits’ problem is set up first. His girlfriend is throwing things around the room and yelling at him and he just sits there and takes it. Tom Waits wants to move to another city, again, and she’s tired of it. He grumbles the way he does about feeling trapped (look at that foreshadowing!) and that he just wants to try a new place. He finally gets up after she’s about to throw his shoes out the door. “Not the shoes…” he says to her.
Then John Lurie’s problem. He’s a pimp, but one of those nice pimps, that has to go see about a new girl from a guy that owes him money. As a way of making up for it or something. I can’t really remember his introduction that well, but that’s the gist of it. He’s well liked and respected among his peers, he tends to run things in his part of town.
One more character introduction then I’ll move on. Roberto Benigni, aka the director/writer/actor of Life is Beautiful (1997), in one of the funniest roles I’ve seen in a while. He walks up to a drunk Tom Waits outside a closed liquor store and just wants to practice his English. But he’s so damn cheerful it’s difficult to not fall in love with every scene he’s in. They talk for a minute, Tom Waits tell him to buzz off, and so he does. He’ll be back later.
Anyway, this isn’t a shot by shot explanation of the film. This is technically a hastily written review. So! There’s isn’t much to say about the story because not much REALLY happens. It’s more character-driven, which is all I’ve heard about Jarmusch films. And that’s not a bad thing at all! I loved this film. It was totally awesome. Basically, these three men eventually end up in a jail cell together. Then try to escape. That’s all I’ll really say about the plot right now, I think. Who knows, it’s my hastily written review, I can say what I want to.
A really dope thing this film does is play out a situation for a while and then totally flip it on you. Minor spoilers that happen in the first 30 minutes coming you way, I’ll let you know when I’m done spoiling things with a paragraph break, ergo, skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t/won’t watch the film (but watch it, it’s really good). E.g. John Lurie when he gets caught by the police. So he goes to meet up the girl the guy told him about. He goes into a dark room and starts talking about why he’s the best pimp for this girl. The cops come in and turn on the lights, John Lurie says something along the lines of, “I’m just hanging with my girlfriend.” Turns out the girlfriend is a very young girl. Obviously under 18. Probably under 13. But you know he was set up AND he didn’t know the girl was 13 or so. But everything until you saw the girl seemed totally fine, like this is an average day for him. For Tom Waits, he needs to drive a stolen car across town for $1,000. Whatever, he thinks, he’ll do it. Well, he gets pulled over. Cops open the trunk, turns out there’s a dead body in the back. Whaaaaa. I know it doesn’t SOUND crazy, but it blew my mind because it came out of nowhere (without being something to just push the plot along). We’re left in the dark because Tom Waits was left in the dark. But the buildup is really sketchy and we should have expected the worst.
Spoilers pretty much done now. There’s another great reversal when all three men are in the jail cell. Where one is not who they seem to be. Or, better put, where one of the men in the jail cell actually committed a crime. It’s these little things that set apart the film from others. Small reversals that make you see everything differently. It’s so well done and it’s so amazing that I can’t think of many big films at the moment that have these reversals that keep the viewer engaged in the story (save for The Nice Guys (2016) but that’s Shane Black and that’s kind of his thing).
Another thing that really sets this film apart from others is the cinematography from cinematographer extraordinaire Robby Müller. Paul Thomas Anderson was always jealous of Müller (not jealous, really, more amazed) at how he lights his night scenes because they actually look like night time. You can see it in Repo Man (1984) and you can see it here. Down by Law is definitely an indie film. But has the look of a polished Hollywood big-budget flick. The cinematography and lack of handheld shots (not that I’d argue this script calls for handheld shots at all) separates it from other low budget indie films that often too quickly rely on handheld for whatever reason. I’m not knocking handheld, but it’s nice to see an indie film look crisp and clean every once in a while. I’d say Green Room (2015) has a nice, non-indie look to it while still very much being an indie film.
That’s all I can think to say right now. Down by Law was fantastic. There’s a lot more I could say on it, probably, but I’m tired. Go watch it.