D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   J O E   P E T T I T ,   J R .

The films of Jim Jarmusch are an acquired taste. Idiosyncratic in their subject matter, style, and vision, his films challenge the viewer to step out of the plastic, movie-plex, blockbuster mentality into a more personal artistic vision. Unlike the majority of directors and screenwriters who base their productions around the confines of the story, Jarmusch delights in finding particular individuals -- interesting people who he knows and would like to collaborate with -- around which to create a scenario. It's chemistry and reaction that interests him -- the results of the peculiar alchemy that occurs when unusual combinations of people are thrown together in a situation. The results of his experiments tend to be as funky and personal as the people involved in the projects. In Down by Law, this particular aggregation formed gold. Equal parts prison break movie, film noir, mismatched buddy flick, homage to New Orleans, and fairy tale, Down by Law successfully fuses its disparate elements and soars beyond the sum of its parts, a fascinating testament to intuitive filmmaking.

The heart of the film centers on the relationship between the three characters of Jack (John Lurie), Zack (Tom Waits) and Roberto (Roberto Begnini). Jack and Zack, as their names imply, are mirror image characters, negative portraits of each other. Jack, a pimp who has designs to make the big time, spends most of his days imaging the ongoing movie that chronicles his triumphant future. He never works to materialize his crazy plans. His inability to pay attention to the details in the present subverts his efforts. Until he lands in prison, the people around him exist only as props, as means for him to build his empire, thus making him some dangerous enemies. Zack, another solipsistic character, is a disc jockey who refuses to play the political game of stroking his bosses to protect his career. His uncompromising attitude and his fascination with the seamy side of life alienate him from his girlfriend, Laurette (Ellen Barkin), who throws him out of their apartment and out of her life. Not long after, a hustler named Preston (Vernel Bagneris), sets him up for charges of car theft and murder. Roberto, an Italian traveler who speaks little English, is ironically the only one of the three who actually committed the crime (murder) he is imprisoned for. Roberto is the naïf, the magic man who intuitively knows that life's possibilities exceed any plan or scheme that he can cook up. His innocence opens the door of possibility for Jack and Zack, inviting in magic, mystery, and wonder. He also provides the glue that cements the relationship between the three. Jack and Zack learn to care for someone outside of themselves, and grudgingly for each other. They learn to become "down by law" -- street slang for covering someone's back. It's no accident that Roberto is the only character who gets to stay in paradise. He finds true love with an Italian émigré (Nicoletta Braschi) who owns a diner on the edge of the bayou. (This fairy tale played out in real life: Benigni and Braschi fell in love and remain married to this day.) After Roberto is out of the picture, Jack and Zack head down opposite forks in the road.

Cinematography and music play an important part in the creation of the film. Robby Muller's cinematography cultivates an atmosphere of unreality amidst familiarity. His wide, static compositions take in an enormous amount of detail, giving the scenes an element of hyper reality. The choice to use static compositions, still shots that go on for minutes, further enhances the element of reality. He ignores the traditional filmmaker's practice of cutting back and forth between subjects to show reactions. This slows down the film's action but simultaneously gives it a unique rhythm. It's more natural, less contrived. The use of black-and-white film stock contributes to the atmosphere of mystery that permeates the film. Shades of gray and shadow (as in the night shots on the streets of New Orleans, the prison escape through the watery tunnel, or the boat traveling through duckweed in the swamp) illuminate the alien aspects of the familiar world. John Lurie's score masterfully accentuates the development of the action. A fine example occurs during the scene where Preston offers Zack his proposition. Trombones blast a low and ominous warning, reflecting Zack's reservations that the offer isn't quite above board. Never flashy, never calling undue attention to itself, the score complements and propels the action.

Keeping with tradition, Criterion's presentation of Down by Law goes all out by providing an abundance of extras that not only add further illumination and depth to one's analysis of the movie but also highlight the idiosyncrasy of the project (reflected in the comments of the cast and crew assembled for this film) and of Jarmusch's method of working. Rather than the traditional scene-by-scene director's commentary, Jarmusch records a separate section of thoughts and reflections on Down by Law. This free ranging method allows him to cover a lot more ground in his own fashion. A straightforward commentary would probably have inhibited Jarmusch's recollections. In an interview recorded in June 2002 at the Horius Botanical Garden in Amsterdam, cinematographer Robby Muller (Dancer in the Dark, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, The Buena Vista Social Club) provides a great deal of technical information (lenses and film stock used, how shots were composed, lighting techniques), and a bit of his own philosophy on the creation of art. He reveals how Down by Law remains a personal touchstone for him -- a moment where the ideal creative situation (a combination of cast, crew, and combined working methods) coalesced. Further technical information (film stock, filters, t-stops, lenses, lighting and focus distance) can be found in the segment featuring first assistant photographer Jack Anderson's collection of Polaroid test shots.

Also included on this DVD, an excerpt from a 1986 Cannes Film Festival press conference shows the tedium involved in large press junkets. The director and his actors look worn and are sometimes irritated by the proceedings. In this segment, another facet of Jarmusch's personality is illuminated. At the time, he had little interest in discussing influences on his work. Whenever a reporter asked a question about particular influences on Down by Law, such as film noir, Jarmusch answered disingenuously, claiming he didn't understand the question, or impatiently, saying it wasn't a good question. When asked about particular working methods involved, he comes alive and is quite generous in his answers. As in the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony when he won best actor for Life is Beautiful, Roberto Begnini steals the show with his warm enthusiasm and his humorous answers to the questions posed. John Lurie's Cannes interview coupled with his recently recorded commentary on the interview probably provide the most hilarious moment in the extra features. Lurie comes off as scattered and jittery in the 1986 interview, and the elder Lurie reveals why -- lack of sleep, combined with an intense dislike for the female interviewer and some type of drug ingested to keep him awake gelled together in an unholy union, frying his synapses and reducing his thoughts into incoherency. Lurie translates his embarrassment about the person he used to be into some funny and insightful observations about his past, about the Cannes festival, and about composing film scores. He wraps up the commentary querying, "so in ten years can I make the commentary on the commentary and come back and say what an asshole I am now?" Phone interviews between Jarmusch, Waits, Begnini, and Lurie not only show the fond recollections they all have about the project but illustrate the deepened friendships that resulted from the experience of filming Down by Law.

Like the original production of the film, the Criterion Collection's edition of Down by Law is obviously a labor of love for all involved, a fantastic package that celebrates a fantastic movie. Highly recommended.

Down by Law is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in new widescreen digital transfer. Special features: comments and reflections by Jim Jarmusch; outtakes; 2002 video interview with director of photography Robby Muller; 1986 Cannes Film Festival press conference with Jarmusch and stars John Lurie and Roberto Benigni; isolated music track; production Polaroids; location stills; music video for Tom Waits' cover of Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me" (directed by Jim Jarmusch); and a theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $39.95 each. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.