Walking the line of innovation as often as he can, director Jim Jarmusch has procured a back catalogue of interesting, well-cast ideas that reflect how or what he is feeling behind the camera. In the case of Down by Law, a fractured trio come together. Their backgrounds are varying, but they come together with the common goal of escape. Their hearts and minds lead them down different paths, but when their goal is so broad and common, it is easy for them to begin working together. From there, though, their bond grows and strengthens, soon turning the trio into more than comrades looking for the blissful breakout from behind bars.
For that to take effect, we must rely on the charming inclusions of Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni. Each are, indeed, from different backgrounds. Their characters are too. Waits’ role as Zack sees him play a shattered disc jockey. He has been thrown out of his home, and he sits between his life’s work. Down by Law is a prophecy for new beginnings. It doesn’t just implore the viewer to think of a fresh start but begs them to follow it and leave behind their past discrepancies. Sitting in the mess of his previous life, Zack can wallow in there forever, or, by breaking from prison alongside pimp Jack (Lurie) and Italian tourist Roberto (Benigni), can seek out a new and fulfilling way of life.
It is no coincidence that life feels stale at times. Down by Law captures that nicely. These people are not happy or sad, they are merely content. So many of us are. We coast on through without setting the time aside to contemplate whether or not our lives are really being lived out to their fullest potential. Jarmusch’s direction does not quite get into the core of this, but he lingers on the outside, crafting good dialogue and relationships between this trio. He never taps into regret, because these characters should not entirely curse and rue their previous choices. They are imprisoned for seemingly trivial reasons, which makes their escape not justified, but essential. It is the new beginning they had not been seeking, but when presented with such an opportunity, who could possibly turn it down?
There are times when Jarmusch bites off more than he can chew. It is hard to swallow his rather primitive design of life, but then again it is crafted with such intricate care for the cinematography that it is hard not to be swept away on some level. Benigni is sidelined rather swiftly, but Jarmusch must do so. He cannot whisk everyone away into the free-wheelin’ times. Some are happy with the home comforts, as Roberto is here. Others, not so much. Waits and Lurie present that well, and the literal crossroads they face does not feel all that symbolic when they have already chosen the path to a new life. We do not forget those who make these changes possible, but we may forget why we moved away from them in the first place. Down by Law is a touching reminder of that.