For his second film, “Down by Law,” Jarmusch chose to make a “neo-noir comedy.” The title is an idiomatic expression, which means to be “taken down” by the legal system, or to be in command of one's destiny.
With a budget of $1 million provided by Island Pictures, he hired cinematographer Robby Mueller and again filmed in black-and white. Jarmusch casts the surly, laconic John Lurie (who starred in “Stranger Than Paradise”) as Jack, a New Orleans pimp sent to prison, where he shares a cell with Zack (Tom Waits), an unemployed disc jockey arrested for vagrancy.
Zack and Jack, who are more alike than either can bear, detest each other. They sullenly live together until a magical presence, Roberto, intervenes. A cheerful Italian tourist, Roberto cheats at cards, loves American culture, and is the only one of the three to have killed anyone, though in a self-defense incident involving the use of a billiard ball.
Roberto, played by comedian Roberto Benigni in a manner evoking Stan Laurel and Chaplin, stages an unlikely prison break and eventually humanizes the dour, irascible Americans. Gradually forging a friendship, the trio escape into the Louisiana bayou, where they chance upon a roadhouse run by a ravishing Italian emigree (Nicoletta Braschi), who falls in love with “Bobo.”
“Down by Law” plays like a comic reversal of Hollywood movies, in which a high-spirited American would show dejected Europeans how to get something done. Chosen to open the 1986 New York Film Festival, Down by Law was consciously more cheerful and entertaining film than Stranger Than Paradise. “I am tired of the cinema of despair and existential angst,” Jarmusch said. “I'm interested in comedy in a new kind of context. Not just sight gags. Not just linguistic jokes. But humor based on small details, things from daily life that are funny.”
A poetic fable, “Down by Law” is photographed by Muller in rich black-and-white tones and deep focus, which enabled the audience to see the actions and reactions to the characters, deviating from the standard Hollywood angle-reverse angle, in which the camera intercuts between actors.
The excitement in watching a Jarmusch film derives not so much from its subject as from its use of film language in a manner that differentiate his work from both theater and literature.