#284 Down By Law
(1986, Jim Jarmusch)
“America’s the big melting pot. You bring it to a boil and all the scum rises to the top.”
The last time I reviewed a Jim Jarmusch movie it was a Western, which probably wasn’t the best way to get introduced to him considering my track record with the genre. So maybe this movie will be better, since it’s a prison drama, and “prison drama” tends to evoke things like Shawshank Redemption and A Man Escaped, which I highly enjoyed.
Oh, the lead role is occupied by gravel-voiced blues singer Tom Waits? Well, um…I guess that’s not automatically going to make this bad, right? I mean, Björk was good in Dancer In The Dark, so being a singer doesn’t automatically make you a bad actor, surely…
Down By Law is about three men who meet in prison. Zack (Tom Waits), a radio DJ, and Jack (John Lurie), a pimp, have been set up, while Bob (Roberto Bengini) was arrested for manslaughter. The three men attempt to break out of prison and form an unlikely friendship.
Okay, so I said that maybe I shouldn’t judge Tom Waits’ acting ability in the lead role simply because he’s a singer? Well, maybe I should because he’s a terrible actor. Not completely terrible, because the moments when he’s called on to do a convincing radio voice, he pulls it off spectacularly. The problem lies in whenever he’s asked to do anything else, which to him appears to mean “sit around looking stoned out of your mind and mumble some lines with no emotion”, since that is his entire performance here.
Are his co-stars any better? Not really. They’re all pretty drab too. They all show as much enthusiasm for their roles as Waits does and it’s hard to connect with any of these characters. The fact that everyone in the film appears to be an irredeemable asshole doesn’t particularly help either.
So, okay, the acting isn’t great, but maybe there are other elements that make this a little more worthwhile. Perhaps the plot is an intriguing blend of prison politics and exciting jailbreak scenes that keep things tense and interesting?
Nope! Jarmusch apparently set out to make a character piece that focused on the interaction between the main characters, who, again, are a stoned-out-of-his-mind Tom Waits, a moody guy with few character traits besides “pimp” and an annoying Italian stereotype. Not really the best starting point for a character piece, then.
The plot is split into three sections – pre-prison, in prison, and post-prison-break – and none of them particularly work well. Pre-prison consists of Zack arguing with his girlfriend and getting drunk in a town where every woman seems to be a prostitute. On top of this, we then have Jack sitting around while a naked lady rolls about in his bed, before a weird man tells him to meet a new prostitute and getting busted because the girl’s about 12. That bit had the potential to be exciting, but it really wasn’t.
Prison scenes are little more than an annoying Italian stereotype constantly talking while the other two leads mope around, culminating in a scene where they start shouting about ice cream for about ten minutes.
Post-prison is just a slog through the wilderness, where Bob magically falls in love with another Italian stereotype and the other two continue to mope their way to a limp ending.
The film isn’t even all that interesting to look at. It’s basically just a collection of run-down locations that don’t feel like real places, and the monochrome colour palette does more harm than good.
So, Down By Law felt ultimately pointless. It felt like it was trying to be cool, but I wasn’t sure how it expected to achieve this. It failed to be engaging and intriguing, and the acting played a big part in this. Stick to singing, Tom.
Starring Tom Waits, John Lurie & Roberto Bengini
Written by Jim Jarmusch
Produced by Alan Kleinberg
Music by John Lurie & Tom Waits
Cinematography by Robby Muller
Edited by Melody London
Favourite Scene: When it finished.
Scene That Bugged Me: That goddamn “we all scream for ice cream” bit.
Watch it if: You’re a huge Tom Waits fan, I guess
Avoid it if: You want to feel a little more engaged with characters in movies