I Saw in Louisiana...
Nicolas Rapold on Down by Law

The teenaged cousin of a French friend said he loved Down by Law because it was thoroughly American, alive with freedom and movement. France was closed, he said; the U.S. and Jarmusch, wide open. Greener-grass suspicions aside, the comment refreshed for me this good old view of America, one usually yoked to the very slam-bang action and bustling small-town communities avoided by the director. One common way of describing this free feel of his films (so common that it’s almost a surprise to hear Jarmusch himself voice it on the Criterion release) is that they show the moments that stretch between dramatic events instead of the events themselves—a vast complementary firmament. In Down by Law, it seems appropriate that the symmetrical frame-ups of Jack (John Lurie) and Zack (Tom Waits), the most explicitly executed parts of the plot (literally plots, set in motion by hoods as crooked as a dog’s hind leg), fail for them with such finality in this drifting world.

Yet their resulting imprisonment in turn begets a new freedom through their escape, and it’s this sort of interplay between structure and openness that makes the drift of Down by Law so beguiling. The plot follows an almost theatrical three-part structure, from the framing to the jail time to the bayou escape. The first part is itself a study in symmetry, as long before sharing a cell Jack and Zack are shackled by the details of their downfall: a woman in their bed opens her eyes, a melodramatic spat, a crook’s wound-up pitch, and the fall before the law.

But then they sink to the ground zero of the prison cell, bringing only what makes them themselves. Two cools: Zack a nostalgic vision of the musician hipster (for once the word has meaning) but with hang-ups, and Jack a pimp on the rise (is there any other kind?). Each comes from a life punctuated by performance, Zack deejaying and Jack hustling, both talking their walks. Yet ESL superstar Roberto (Roberto Benigni) will upstage them both, a wanderer who seems to talk himself into being, with a magpie’s collection of slang and a head full of Frost and Whitman, and American movies.

The two Americans he encounters might be background players coming straight out of those movies, but Jarmusch’s long takes elevate them to main characters and transform their static dead ends through the texture of a summer night’s secret small hours. In getting framed they zip down the fatal-easy-money drain of a film noir, without the slow burn. Things just seem to happen to them, and they’re headed for the same place, but they react distinctly to the possibility of success, in Jarmusch’s recurring pattern of passive characters and circumstance.

When the hoods make their offers (“I’m serious as cancer!”), Jack throws out a bluster that it looks like he’s been waiting to practice, gesturing smooth ultimatums with his hands. Later, when he’s pitching services to the girl in the room, Jarmusch crops the frame so that he looks as if he is auditioning to someone offscreen left, his breakthrough performance till the cops crash through the door. Zack, who has some self-awareness, recognizes his weakness to his crook’s temptation. He turns away, curling his shoulders to shelter against an exposed wall, but like every mark can’t resist thinking both that he’s owed something and that he’s getting one over the other guy. So the two are eaten up by the New Orleans night, which seemed to seek them out even in the daytime through an opening that scanned the city right to left and back again.

In the prison cell Jarmusch’s film folds into itself and, avoiding the cinematic expectation to plot escape, enters a realm of pure language, a poetic melting pot. Roberto’s tongue muddles his Z’s and J’s, so Jack and Zack, their fates identical, are now also collapsed into one person. To use Luc Sante’s word in his Criterion essay, the Italian clown uses not just his notebook but the English language itself as a prop, a tool for his earnest desire to connect that renders the meaning itself irrelevant. Short next to Lurie, who wraps himself in a blanket like a prizefighter, Benigni delivers his still-forming lines with the drawl of a toddler working through a difficult word in telling what he did in school. For their parts, Zack voices some alternatives to empiricism (“These walls are not here”), while Jack, with unexpected dry humor, resists Roberto’s linguistic fantasy (“In this case you are looking at the window,” of the drawing on the cell wall). And when it comes to the conjugation of ice cream into potential cellblock revolution, it is, as a friend observed, “like Dada for pimps.”

In rosier illustration of the “melting pot” cynically described earlier as bringing the scum to the top, the immigrant’s momentum is what sets the boys in action. His vision remains robust and open (if unknown), especially alongside the punctured dreams of his companions: Jack’s hustle interruptus in the girl’s room, whirling around mid-cool to see the vice squad; and Zack’s import-car cruise, murmuring “hey baby” to the hookers, a perfect night up to and including razzing the rookie in the bust itself, until the body is found.

They lapse naturally into these old personas, as if continued unbroken, when the three separate in the black forest. Jack and Zack track off at different vectors on walks in the bush composed of fragments from a street face-off and a deejay set. Left alone, Roberto does anything to avoid the genuine terror of when he was abandoned at the riverbank (Jack: “Mark Twain’ll come by and pick you up in a steamboat”). Unlike most Jarmusch characters, accustomed to wandering through the desolate locales inherited from the pre-colonized NYC streets of Permanent Vacation, Roberto stands panicked in the frame mumbling Italian until Zack hustles him safely off stage. So when he later sits by the rabbit on a spit, he talks himself and company into being, story-telling about his mother and three sisters (who, in the continued linguistic subtlety of his drunken accent, merge as one beloved mass: “Brun’Albertin’Anna”).

It is a brave act of will, more effusive of his self in this brief monologue than Jack-Zack all film, and (he would like this) an emergence of Whitman into the film. (His beloved Frost of course appears in the final shot.) When his friends return—their divergent paths taking them to the same place—they stand heavy in the shadows like zombies until revived by Roberto, who may as well be writing the script by now. It is a short trip to his dreaming an Italian-owned fry shack (“Luigi’s Tintop”) on a bayou back road and realizing its existence, and to finding romance, in Benigni’s actual wife conjured into movie land.

Jack and Zack stand outside, looking through the window, their own plots postponed until they improvise their own journey, as they must. It might be more Australian than American to end with two convicts starting new lives, but then it took an Italian to give them company, and their freedom.