It's late. You are on your own, on the sofa, drinking coffee or maybe something a little stronger. If you smoke then you possibly have a cigarette on the go. Or maybe something a little stronger. It's a hot summer's night, the window is open and the lights and sounds of the street filter into the room. Your lady, fella, whoever has left you and you're seeking solace the only way you know, in the bosom of one of your favourite movies. You want to see one film and one film only. You want to watch Down By Law.
The story has a familiar premise, touching on both noir and new wave. Out of work DJ Zak (Tom Waits) and pimp Jack (John Lurie) are both set up for different crimes they did not commit and find themselves in Orleans Parish Prison in the same cell. It's pretty much hate at first sight and as time passes so their antagonism towards each other increases. The tension is broken up by their new cellmate, the Italian Bob (Roberto Benigni) who charms them with his homespun philosophies and colloquialisms into calling a truce with one another, before hatching a plan of escape. However the path to freedom is not an easy one, and once on the outside, the 3 cons have to rely on each other as well as their wits to stay alive in the Louisiana swamps.
Don't be fooled, this ain't your average prison break movie. Somewhat of a parable, Down By Law is an offbeat gem of a film about the foibles of human nature with intricately drawn characters and enough balls, style and essence of cool to keep you interested in a slow moving, yet engrossing storyline.
So how come it's this film that fits your mood? Perhaps it's the unlikely combination of it's three lead actors that does it for you. It's definitely a strange contrast. Avant-garde jazz musician John Lurie and singer/songwriter Tom Waits (fresh from Raindogs and Franks Wild Years) both posture to the camera in some sort of quasi-method as they are set up against the animated budding Italian comedian Roberto Benigni. Lurie looks and dresses like someone out of a 1950s gangster film, with his big features, suit and jazzy tie looking quite anachronistic for 1986. Waits with his chin warmer and DJ Lee Baby Sims rap is much more rooted in the present, a proper night owl to fit the spirit of the film. Benigni bounces off the pair of them and the walls, his wild hair and reactions more often than not the focus of attention when not much else is going on screen.
Or maybe it's the stunning black and white photography from Robby Müller? Sometimes roving, often just still, Müller's lens depicts the sweltering setting of pre-flood New Orleans and Louisiana - the streets, the houses, the tenement blocks, swamps and prison cells. Indeed at times the camera gives off as much attitude as the actors and Down By Law is a very beautiful film to watch.
More than likely though if you are watching this film then you prescribe to the unique and slightly twisted worldview of American independent film-maker Jim Jarmusch. Down By Law is more than the sum of it's parts and that is down to Jarmusch. From the initial moments when the first bars of Tom Waits' jagged bluesy Jockey Full of Bourbon strike whilst Müller's slow tracking montage of New Orleans life passes across the screen, through to the odd and somewhat open ending, Down By Law delights in its defiance of the rules of its genre.
A lot of this is down to the freestyle way the characters interact with each other. In fact the whole film has an improv feel to it. You can imagine Jarmusch sitting down with the actors, setting them a basic premise on which to act out the next scene, and then just letting it roll to see what happens, rather like a jam session. With the fresh comic touches of Benigni coming as light relief to the downbeat backstory and the actors opposite him, it's a plan that works brilliantly and makes for some very entertaining moments. The fact that it's Lurie who provides the film's dark jazzy score and Waits who's songs frame the movie just adds to the impression that Down By Law is a collaborative effort from all major players involved.
It's a tribute Jarmusch and all involved that you leave the film wanting to see more of Bob, Zack and Jack after the screen goes black. How do their stories continue? How do they end? In a crazy way a sequel going back to their lives further on down the line would be welcome. Because in Down By Law it is indeed a sad and beautiful world, and one that perhaps we can relate to.