How do a pimp, a DJ and a straight-off-the-boat Italian immigrant break out of jail? Bad joke? Nope! It’s the set-up to Jim Jarmusch’s cult classic Down By Law, starring everyone’s favorite growling troubadour, Tom Waits.
Set in the seedy underbelly of New Orleans and the murky swamps of Louisiana, Down By Law follows three men entrenched in lifestyles of crime and despair. Tom Waits plays Zack, a DJ who can’t hold down a job, a house, or a girlfriend and nurses his heartache with cheap whiskey. Waits plays the role perfectly, which is no surprise since he’s written hundreds of songs about men struggling through the same “wasted and wounded” existence. Waits also contributes some of his Rain Dogs era music to the film’s eccentrically cool soundtrack.
Zack gets framed for a crime he didn’t commit and gets thrown in jail with Jack, a pimp who couldn’t control his ladies, clients, or bad ideas. Jack and Zack can’t get along until a goofy Italian immigrant shows up with a plan to break out of the Louisiana “Big House”. Roberto Benigni plays the aforementioned Italian, also named Roberto. Down By Law is Benigni’s first film, and he steals every scene with his charming wit and understandably silly cultural mistakes.
Jarmusch shows the tragedy of poverty, the tedium of jail life and the excitement of freedom—what he doesn’t show is how the three protagonists break out of jail. Jarmusch prefers to take an introspective look at three nobodies and the landscape that surrounds them. The film is shot in black and white, with careful attention paid to the dreary, grey atmosphere. It’s film noir without a mystery, but enough alcohol, crime, and moral ambiguity to keep things interesting. Down By Law is a hidden gem begging to be unearthed by anyone who likes to spend time with people from the wrong side of the tracks after all the bars have closed.