Digging your own grave


The opening tracking shot begins with a hearse parked outside a cemetery—”You’re digging your own grave,” one character will soon warn another—before rolling past dilapidated clapboard houses and subtropical colonial semi-ruins out front of which men get frisked by the fuzz. Later, another such tracking shot slides through a prison corridor, past crowded cells, exhausted bodies draped over the bars, walls strewn with stray thoughts and rows of lines counting off the days. Later still this lateral view-on-the-move is applied to the bayou, monstrous trees looming over swampy shores. A downbeat noir street survey-prison break-lost in the wilderness fantasia, Down By Law (1986), like a number of Jim Jarmusch films, loves the number three: three parts, three general locations, three characters: Jack the pimp (John Lurie), Zack the deejay (Tom Waits) and Roberto the wanderer (Roberto Benigni). Down By Law also loves juxtapositions, between hipster reticence and cheerful immigrant babble, between the embracing of genre tropes and genre subversion, between playing cool and urgency—’Jockey Full of Bourbon,’ the whip-smart Waits mambo that suffuses the film, urges its addressee to “Fly away home/ your house is one fire/ your children all alone.” But is anybody listening?

Down By Law exudes love for many things and I’ve loved it back in return since my first time. Metro Cinema is screening the film as part of what I hope is an on-going Jarmusch retrospective, prompted by the release of Jarmusch’s latest, the vampire-domestic comedy-long-term love story Only Lovers Left Alive. Down By Law was Jarmusch’s third feature, but it already displayed several patterns that would define much of the writer-director’s work: variations on themes, the employment of actors who aren’t normally actors but have cultivated a persona in another field (both Lurie and Waits were established in music long before this), playing to strengths while throwing yourself a curveball. Jarmusch had never been to New Orleans or anywhere in Louisiana when he set out to write Down By Law—but he knew the movie version. And he went down there with Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller, one of the greats, who shot a gorgeous, lustrous black and white that simultaneously rendered the landscape more abstract and emphasized its starkest details, creating a phantasmagorical travelogue that converses fluently with Lurie’s fragmented jazz score, which often sounds like insects and drunken birds emitting protracted drone-songs in call and response.

The inspired convergence of characters that makes Down By Law a feature experience rather than a collection of vignettes occurs in the second third, in the dank cell shared by Jack, Zack and Roberto, scrapping, scheming, screaming for ice cream. All of them wound up inside by some mixture of bad luck and bad behaviour. Take any two of these guys and animosity would overrule every attempt at anything requiring cooperation, but as a trio they function—at least until one of them meets the woman of his dreams in the middle of the swamp and the remaining two must part ways, rambling down arbitrarily chosen paths to who knows where. I would love to see these characters turn up somewhere else, in some other Jarmusch film. Perhaps if we keep watching they’ll turn up on some trash-covered corner somewhere, trying to figure out what screwy kind of movie they’re in this time. For now, just enjoy this one. Next week you’ll see some new faces inhabit Jarmusch’s hallucinogenic western told form the perspective of an accountant and an Indian.

Thu, Jul 17 – Wed, Jul 23
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Originally released: 1986

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