Southern Movie 11: “Down by Law”

The first time I ever saw or knew anything about Jim Jarmusch, I went to the Capri Theatre to watch the 1994 documentary, Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made, in which an aging director walks Jarmusch through the jungles that would have been the set for a John Wayne movie (that was never made). That documentary was agonizingly dull, and my buddies, who I had talked into going to see it, were pissed with me for wasting their money and their time. The next time was in 1996’s Sling Blade, where Jarmusch played a Frostee Cream employee who sells Billy Bob Thornton his French fries with mustard. When I saw him lean out that little window, all I could think was: that’s the guy from that shitty documentary.

So it would be a long time before I gave Down by Law a chance. Though I didn’t know it until later, Jarmusch had directed several films that I had already seen: 1991’s Night on Earth, which I had watched on Bravo! years ago, back when Bravo was still an arts TV network; 1995’s Dead Man, a surreal black-and-white Western starring Johnny Depp; and 2003’s latter-day Coffee and Cigarettes, which along with My Dinner with Andre is one of the few movies where two people just sit and talk. No, my only real comprehension of Jarmusch’s work came from Tigrero and from the Frostee Cream, so seeing his name as the director of Down by Law didn’t incite my confidence.

(To be honest, too, I was starting junior high when Down by Law came out, in 1986. If the twelve-year-old me had encountered this stark, ironic, black-and-white movie, I probably would have turned it off.)

Down by Law opens with a panoramic drive through the poorest parts of New Orleans, and Jarmusch drapes the scene in the Tom Waits’ song “Jockey Full of Bourbon.” The first two people we meet are Zack (Tom Waits himself) and Jack (John Lurie), both of whom are having women troubles. Zack is wayward radio DJ, who ambles into bed at dawn, and the next time we see him, he is rocking back and forth silently as his girlfriend (Ellen Barkin) verbally and physically abuses him for his career failings, then throws him (and his 45s) out into the street. Jack is a young pimp, who sits coolly and silently while a naked black woman waxes philosophic about his shortcomings, though the two are interrupted by Fatso, a toothless loser (played by the late Rockets Redglare) who has come to offer Jack a new girl. We get the sense that things won’t go well.

In separate fortuitous circumstances, each man ends up in the Orleans Parish Prison, and become cellmates. Jack has gotten set up by Fatso, using an under-age girl, and Zack was pulled over while moving a stolen car (with a dead body in the trunk) across town. Soon, a third man is put in the cell with them: an Italian who speaks no English, who we recognize from a brief encounter with Zack earlier. Unfortunately, the jail cell scenes are slow. Very slow. Jarmusch likes to hold one camera shot for a long time, and he does that shamelessly during this part of the film.

But our anti-heroes escape! After running wildly through a watery sewer, they  evade the howling hounds and make it to a swamp. Zack even says at one point, “Out of the frying pan into the fire.”

Which is where I stop this discussion of the plot, because that’s how I felt putting myself through this film . . . Look here, the three guys do some other stuff, struggle in the swamp, find a cabin, meet a lady, yadda-yadda, and have a lot of meaningless quasi-philosophical conversations as they go. The end. I didn’t think it could be done, but Jim Jarmusch found a way to make a seedy New Orleans jailbreak movie boring.

When I decided to write about Down by Law for the Southern Movie of the Month, I knew it meant that I would have to re-watch it. Sigh. I did it, but suffering through this guy’s movies is like being in a two-hour all-lecture freshman Western Civ course taught by an elderly professor who is “semi-retired.” O . . . M . . . G . . .  The kind of people who like these movies probably also liked Clerks and . . . I don’t know, maybe Fellini films. (If you’ve ever watched Roma and wondered, why am I watching this? then you know how it feels to watch Down by Law.)

In the movie reviews section of his website, the late Roger Ebert wrote:

Down by Law is a true original that kind of grows on you. Maybe it goes on a little too long, and maybe it depends too much on its original inspiration – these three misfits and the oddballs they meet along the way – instead of trying to be about something.

Ebert has a point. Down by Law is more about being quirky and “cool” than about any storyline.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, though, that was a common indie thread: random weirdness as cool. This was back when the terms “alternative” or “indie” meant something, before corporations had totally co-opted and commodified the underground. (If you don’t believe me, look where CBGB is re-opening in an airport.) Down by Law fits into an older indie genre in which musicians became bad actors using questionable scripts, a genre that would include 1982’s Smithereens or 1983’s Suburbia or 1987’s Border Radio.

Anyway . . . as a narrative of the Deep South, this film does have some merit. Jarmusch shows the seedy New Orleans, usually unseen behind the closed doors on wrought-iron balconies, without being too forced about it. The clichés are handled tastefully enough to avoid being like . . . Dan Aykroyd’s House of Blues Brothers, with clean bathrooms so the tourists don’t get upset. This place has women pacing under corner streetlights, nasty jail cells, and mucky swamps. Despite my prejudices against the director’s plodding cinematography and mind-numbingly dull dialogue, some people might like it. I’m just not one of them.

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