It's almost impossible not to know a Jim Jarmusch film the second you lay eyes on it; his sturdy compositions, dry interactions, and (typically) black and white cinematography make him distinctive in a way that's both easily identified and imitated. His style is so static that it'd probably be insufferable if not for the actors he chooses, and for the freedom that he gives them within the frame. There is no better example of this than Down By Law, his immediate follow-up to his breakthrough Stranger Than Paradise. Sophomore efforts are notoriously tricky, but Down is even stronger than Stranger; livelier, more exciting, and noticeably more warm-blooded. Where other directors might have smothered the film under their stylistic graces, Jarmusch refines them to the point of being nearly weightless.
The story of Down By Law is pretty thin, even by Jarmusch standards; three guys land in prison, then try to pull a Shawshank. Zack (Tom Waits), an unemployed disc jockey, and Jack (John Lurie), a pimp, have both been set up and incarcerated, only to land in a Louisiana prison cell with Roberto (Roberto Benigni), a constantly-talking foreigner with minimal command of English. Though none has any real regard for either of the others, escape becomes a necessity for all of them, even if the surrounding bayou isn't much of an improvement. That's about as far as it goes, but this is as much about details as it is about the broad strokes; frequently, the film will seem to stop entirely to allow one of its unique observations to play out. Rare is the director that will allow a near riot to take place inspired by a deranged chant of 'I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream', let alone do it in a single shot that takes the time to make such a scenario at all believable.
Modern viewers may be tempted to draw a parallel between Jarmusch's style and Wes Anderson's, and it's not entirely unwarranted. Both of them clearly stage their action in a painterly way for the camera, rather than allowing the action to dictate movement and simply following it around, and both of them have senses of humor so dry they're at times imperceptible. The primary difference is in Jarmusch's long takes, and his use (or more accurately, complete disuse) of color; most of his films are in black and white, and he will allow his camera to sit still for minutes at a time while actors do their thing. For the most part, their performances are naturalistic enough that the effect never feels forced (which can hardly ever be said of Anderson), and that color, when under or over utiltized, is frequently little more than a distraction.
At least, that's the case with Down By Law, which is emblematic of a period before independent film disappeared into a black hole of tweeness and cynical narcissism. Down is a breath of a fresh, grungy air, not least of which because of the presence of Waits (who has two songs from Rain Dogs on the soundtrack), though it's unfair to single out his performance over the other two. Individually, they are all good, but together, they are lovable (particularly Benigni, many years before Life is Beautiful), short-tempered, frustrating, and regrettably human. It goes without saying that none of them would have anything to do with each other without literally being forced together, and that they won't have anything to say once they're out, but their interactions throughout are disarmingly spontaneous and even sweet, keeping the beating heart of a paean to outlaws and losers remarkably in tact.
The film has been updated with a gorgeous new transfer. There are also audio interviews with Jarmusch and cinematographer Robby Müller from 2002, some footage from the 1986 Cannes film festival, where this played, sixteen outtakes, a music video for Tom Waits's cover of "It's All Right With Me", a Q & A with Jarmusch in which he responds to fan questions, several phone conversations between Jarmusch and his stars, several production polaroids and location stills, and a trailer. For the very curious (or Francophilic), there's a French dub track, featuring Benigni.
"Down By Law (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale July 17, 2012 and is rated R. Drama. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Ellen Barkin, Nicoletta Braschi, Roberto Benigni, John Lurie, Tom Waits.