Witnessing the development of any single artist’s craft is a pretty endlessly rewarding thing to do. In real time, it’s probably just short of astounding, but thanks to the new world being completely digitized, it’s become just as easy a task to look back over history and study the way a director, actor or DP works out his craft over time.
It’s a methodical, slow shift that takes place over the course of Jim Jarmusch’s first few films. The endlessly slow pacing of Permanent Vacation and Stranger than Paradise don’t dissipate immediately. Instead, the reality that Jarmusch is working to display just needs to be reigned in and controlled while being peppered with a few more quips to retain viewers' attentions. The plodding nature of the director’s earliest works can’t really be sullied by criticism – each was a concerted effort at advancing his craft. But at times, it’s really pretty apparent that Jarmusch was being as self indulgent as any of the Hollywood folks he abhorred. What else can account for shots of a couple laying around in bed, one smoking cigarettes, with nothing occurring until a phone rings?
Either way, in part as a result of wrangling two really well known folks for roles in Down By Law – Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits – the film’s pace is jazzed up a bit. Just not too much. There’re still scenes that find Waits’ Zack character sitting under a bridge singing to himself, nursing a bottle of cheap booze. In this film, as with Jarmusch’s previous work, scenes like this work to develop character, something the director is perhaps more concerned with than plot. Down by Law simply sports more interesting folks to watch doing this mundane stuff.
There’s been a great deal written about how filmic approaches like this are tied to a European sense of cinema history. And while Jaques Tati might be an antecedent, each of Jarmusch’s character’s - apart from Benigni in this film and most of the folks in Night on Earth – are distinctly American. There may well be some Frenchy that approaches the lackadaisical cool of either Waits or John Lurie in this film, but those folks would only be coping Americanisms to get them over. These folks aren’t and viewers can tell from Waits’ growl and Lurie’s New York-speak. But that’s not the point to Down by Law either.
What Jarmusch attempts here is to summon some variation on the road film, lend its characters actual depth while still retaining that hard to penetrate exterior. Waits and Lurie find their foil in Begigni’s character, who appears capable of coaxing emotion from the two hardened drifters.
With each player set up in this manner, the eventual conclusion of the film – post drifting through a Louisiana swamp – doesn’t seem a surprise. Surely, some of the details couldn’t have been surmised ahead of time. But the closing scene with Waits and Lurie continuing on down the road wasn’t a stretch. For whatever reason, Jarmusch is taken with the idea of everything being an endless series of fleeting moments. It is. And when each is over, it’s time to move on. Again.