When it comes to my personal tastes it would seem I should never have watched a Jim Jarmusch film until after seeing his early work. I believe the first film of his I saw was 2003’s Coffee and Cigarettes, followed by Broken Flowers and then Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. After these three films, to say I was unmoved and didn’t “get it” would be an understatement. I was at a loss. 2009’s The Limits of Control seemed to be the tipping point.
I was having such a hard time finding anything interesting in these movies. They had their moments, but overall I was left cold and bewildered. After four films, however, I didn’t give up.
In 2010, Criterion released Jarmusch’s 1989 feature Mystery Train, which I watched and loved. It was at that point I realized I had only begun watching the films from the Jim Jarmusch everyone seemed to praise. Left to discover where Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man and Down by Law, the latter of which is the latest Criterion Blu-ray upgrade and another Jarmusch feature I now appreciate.
Criterion first released Down by Law on DVD back in 2002. This Blu-ray upgrade, along with the film and a short insert written by Luc Sante (read that here), includes all the features available on the previous release including, but not limited to, a 2002 audio interview with Jarmusch, a Q&A featuring Jarmusch answering fan questions, 1986 Cannes Film Festival footage, recorded phone conversations between Jarmusch and his three stars Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni, a music video featuring Waits’ cover of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right with Me” directed by Jarmusch and sixteen outtakes including an alternate ending.
The features offer a wealth of insight into Jarmusch’s process and what inspires him as a filmmaker. Like the Mystery Train release, the stand out for me was the Q&A from fans as this 1986 feature has had time to settle with fans, allowing for theories to be built around it and its characters. As such the questions are more pointed and Jarmusch has some great stories from the set.
As for the film itself, like I alluded to above, I enjoyed it and personally loved its opened ending and the strength of Jarmusch’s storytelling ability is realized when you see the alternate/extended ending he thankfully cut. The film follows a trio of men, one an unemployed disc jockey (Waits), another a small-time pimp (Lurie) and the other an Italian tourist (Benigni). The three come together as a matter of circumstance in a New Orleans prison from which they attempt to escape.
The three are an unlikely trio and the story is in the journey and in their clashing personalities. I believe I would have an even greater appreciation for the film if I was more literary conscious as Jarmusch makes frequent references to famous authors and poets with Robert Frost’s classic “The Road Not Taken” playing a heavy role; a poem I’ve thankfully read and am familiar with.
The film is shot in a wonderful black-and-white by Robby Muller, whom I also praised in my Mystery Train review, and here Criterion’s high-definition upgrade gives the movie an authentic look of film with all the grain intact, but an evenly balanced approach that never washes away the image.
As I’ve worked backwards through Jarmusch’s filmography I’ve found myself liking his work more and more, and guess that means either Stranger Than Paradise or Dead Man are next on my list. Down by Law shows Jarmusch is a far more interesting storyteller than I found him to be over the last 13 years and I only hope his best work isn’t behind him. Looking forward, the cast he has assembled for his upcoming vampire feature Only Lovers Left Alive — Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Anton Yelchin — is enough to hope he will maybe tap into what made Down by Law and Mystery Train so great yet again.