American independent director Jim Jarmusch leaped onto the world cinema stage with the idiosyncratic deadpan road movie Stranger than Paradise in 1984 and then followed it up with the equally distinctive prison break movie Down by Law in 1986.
Down by Law became an immediate cult hit partly because of its pokey humor style but also because it starred musicians Tom Waits and John Lurie along side upstart Italian comedian Roberto Benigni - who is so over-the-top he really revs up the film's expressionless tempo.
As in many of Jarmusch's films this one is a modern matter-of-fact fable about down-and-out guys who get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case the two main characters are Jack (Lurie), a small time pimp, and Zack (Waits), a DJ. Both of them - who don't know each other until they end up in the same jail cell together - are set up and wrongfully arrested. The third character is an Italian tourist (Benigni) who ends up in the cell with them. They spend a few weeks in the cell and finally manage to escape into the swamps of Louisiana.
Down by Law, now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection, takes a while to really get going. Jarmusch establishes the gorgeous black and white look, the unhurried pace and vibe of Louisiana, as the primary focal point of the film. The story and the characters develop little by little, as does the humor.
Jarmusch's humor is atypical in film history. He doesn't rely on slapstick or zany screwball comedy. Instead he uses a deliberate, accumulative humor that can only be appreciated as the movie goes along. It's a humor predicated on rigorous framing and long-held shots, which become funny by virtue of their awkward rhythm. Often the dull manner in which the characters talk to one another and the empty spaces they occupy becomes funny for no apparent reason.
This brand of humor - which isn't to everyone's taste - was used to some degree in the past by Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. Today it is employed by such directors as Aki Kaurismaki (Leningrad Cowboys Go America) and Tsai Ming-Liang (What Time is it There?) but not as much in American cinema. In Down by Law the humor comes mainly in the second half when we realize - along with the characters - the absurdity of their situation in the swamps. Basically, they have escaped one prison for another. At least for a while - until the fable-like last 20 minutes.
Down by Law may not be Jarmusch's best film since it tends to poke along a little too slowly at times. But it does have some great moments and it really picks up steam toward the end as the three try to escape the swamp. However, the Criterion Collection DVD of the film is by far the best DVD currently available for any Jarmusch film.
There are two discs and lots of extras. First up on disc one is the commentary track by Jarmusch, which really isn't a proper commentary track. Instead it is a menu from which you can choose subjects and listen to Jarmusch talk. It is very good although it would have been better if Criterion had used it as a regular commentary track.
Disc two features 16 outtakes, various interviews and videos (with curious commentaries), and 40 minutes of questions submitted to Criterion for Jarmusch. Perhaps the best extra - certainly the most unique - are three phone conversations that Jim Jarmusch has with Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, and John Lurie. There are enough extras on this DVD that one could take a whole weekend and play around with them. If you are a fan of Jarmusch or Down by Law then this is a can't-miss DVD. If you don't know anything about Jarmusch, this DVD is a great place to start.