Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Down By Law might just be about consequence. In the first act of the film, when Jack (John Lurie) and Zack (Tom Waits) are arrested somewhat unjustly, there is a feeling that their arrest was inevitable, possibly just because their lives were heading in such a direction that made this possible. They’re imprisoned very quickly and almost out of nowhere, but it doesn’t feel like a surprise because of their lifestyle choices and poor decision-making. In the second act, though, good fortune smiles upon them and it feels as though their actions suddenly have no consequences, like they don’t even occupy the same world as the first act of the film.
Jack and Zack meet Bob (Roberto Benigni), an Italian man who still manages to convey his enthusiasm for life despite his broken English. Though we meet Bob very briefly in the first act, we don’t really get a chance to see who he is outside of prison before he jumps into the story. With Jack and Zack, we’re given an opportunity to understand that they’re not perfect people, but their arrests were misguided or unfair. Jack is a pimp, so it’s clear he’s not exactly walking the straight and narrow, but he is introduced to another girl whom he doesn’t realize is only a child. The police spy on him before jumping in for the arrest. Someone had it out for him, and it’s probably not hard to understand why.
With Zack, well his arrest comes after one poor decision. Down on his luck following a break up, a friend offers Zack $1,000 to pick up a car in one location and drop it off in another, no questions asked. Already more than a little drunk, Zack agrees, and he’s arrested when the cops spot him, apparently already in search of the vehicle, and find a dead body in the trunk.
The degrees of the two men’s crimes are different though probably not by too much, and the reasons they were set up are different as well, but once they’re in prison they might as well be the same person. Their names rhyme, and Bob gets them confused on several occasions. Though Jack and Zack have their own unique characteristics when they talk with each other, once Bob arrives they might as well be the same person. They look at Bob the same way, with the same disapproving stare, and once Bob becomes somewhat entertaining and ultimately useful, they embrace him.
We find out that Bob is in prison for killing a man. While Jack and Zack maintain their innocence, Bob does not, admitting openly to the killing, but he does say that it resulted after the man attacked him first. He was merely defending himself, and despite his imprisonment as well as having committed murder, Bob seems pretty at peace with everything.
He is the good fortune shining down on Jack and Zack. Bob leads them in song, constantly brings up new conversation when the others rather wallow in silent pity, and ultimately he discovers a way out of the prison. Rather than build up to the escape, the three men climb through the hole in the ground with ease. In the last half of the film they struggle to survive in the forrest before finding a safe haven before they go their separate ways.
When Bob panics that he can’t swim across a river to make sure the prison dogs can’t track their scent, Jack and Zack seem to leave without him, though the eventually return to save him, and Bob is pretty damn grateful. If he loves you, he’ll make sure you know it, and the same presumably goes for if he hates you.
The three men get into a small fight and decide to go their separate ways, but pretty soon they’re right back together in the same spot. Later they find a small shop owned by a beautiful Italian woman with whom Bob falls in love after the other two guys send him in ahead, believing he will get caught. He isn’t, and they join him for a pasta and wine-filled homecoming of sorts, even though they don’t even know where they are or where they’re headed.
Bob decides to stay with the woman who owns this shop, Nicoletta (Nicoletta Braschi), and Jack and Zack decide to go their separate ways. It doesn’t matter which one goes West or East, as long as it’s not the same direction.
Like many prison escape or wilderness films, this story focuses on a very primal goal: survival. As we watch the three men try to survive in prison (fighting the boredom) and survive in the wilderness (fighting starvation and the cold) it becomes clear that they were similarly just trying to survive in life before the plot began. Their entire story, then, is about just getting by.
Jarmusch never focuses on where they’re from or where they’re going. Instead it’s just about how to deal with the present and the people who help you through. We know just enough about Jack and Zack to have some empathy for them and perhaps to like them, but we don’t really know much more than that. I had no sense of where the two men might go when the film ends. All we know is that they’re walking a long and lonely road somewhere. But it doesn’t matter where they go, it just matters that they have the opportunity to go somewhere.
Both men are restrained by the lives they’ve fallen into when the film begins. Maybe Jack chose to become a pimp, but he seems to get know enjoyment from it. As one of his girls says, he doesn’t feel like a pimp. He’s too soft-spoken and conviction-less. When he gets arrested, he delivers a half-hearted speech to the girl in bed that feels more dutiful than passionate or enthralling. He doesn’t make her any promises about this life he thinks she’s prepared to go into. He simply tells her it won’t be easy because… well it won’t be easy.
And Zack is kind of a sad sack guy at the beginning of the film. His girlfriend breaks up with him, but only after giving him a chance to redeem himself in her eyes, by committing to looking for more work. Instead, Zack relegates himself to his current life of drinking and doing nothing else because he refuses to compromise what he thinks are his values but is really his ego to get a job that might be beneath him. When she leaves he hits the bottle and isn’t above accepting fishy jobs from old acquaintances that get him in trouble. Both men have chosen this life more through apathy and laziness than anything else. They tried to survive but weren’t doing a very good job.
In prison, however, they’re completely different people. They’re suddenly as tough as they think they need to be to survive in prison. We’ve seen both men cower and emasculate themselves, but within a moment they’re trying to intimidate each other. And when Bob enters the picture they maintain their sinister silence, knowing it keeps him on edge. It’s all about power in prison.
But of course, there’s nothing to do so they eventually have to start speaking. Before Bob arrives they find some common ground when Jack discovers that Zack was a DJ whose voice he knows from the radio. And once Bob helps break the mandated silence, they all come together, as evidenced by a scene in which they boisterously sing “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream” over and over until they’re dancing in circles before the guards come.
In the wilderness following their escape, survival doesn’t depend on their steely disposition, so they let it drop. The three of them start to feel like brothers, bickering often but then lending a helping hand even when survival might be easier if they severed these ties.
But the ultimate decision to maintain these relatively newly formed bonds pays off when Bob acts as the perfect ice breaker, welcoming them into a safe, inviting home, that of Nicoletta. The final message of the film seems to be that some things aren’t meant to last and many more don’t need to last. These are just people and relationships that help you through the moment, and hopefully you take some of that away with you for the next round of survival.