The writer/director Jim Jarmusch was one of the frontrunners in the American independent cinema that emerged in the 1980s - though frontrunner makes his cinema sound more energetic than it actually is. Jarmusch's proposition, radical in the age of the Rambo and Indiana Jones franchises, was that character could be defined by inaction as much as it could by action; that a movie's blood might run cool as easily as hot. His recent works flirt, in this chill vein, with the samurai, hitman and vampire genres (Ghost Dog, The Limits of Control, Only Lovers Left Alive), pondering what would come about if figures made stock in the course of a thousand and one other runouts were observed doing nothing very much at all.
1986's Down by Law was Jarmusch's take on the crime movie, shot - by Wim Wenders fave Robby Muller - in the same gleaming, high-contrast monochrome of countless Golden Age noirs. The crucial difference is one of tone: rather than replay the rat-a-tat rhythms of those old Cagney-Robinson programmers, Jarmusch here holds everything a beat or two too long, and thereby allows us to see how no-one on screen's going anywhere in particular. Scarface and Little Caesar were upwardly mobile; Down by Law's central trio - low-rent pimp Jack (John Lurie), inebriate DJ Zack (Tom Waits) and Bob (Roberto Benigni), the garrulous Italian with which this pair wind up sharing a Louisiana prison cell - are marked from a very early stage as patsies heading for a fall.
Still, Jarmusch warms to their company, enough to allow them the odd moment of solidarity, a few small, doubtless fleeting triumphs, and taking us down among the drunks and deadbeats allows the film to peer beyond the gleaming surfaces amply documented elsewhere in Reagan-era American cinema: the film's opening travelling shots, scrolling us back and forth past trash-strewn backstreets and crumbling playgrounds that seem to hold up a mirror to our heroes' generally dilapidated personal lives, may have provided a generation of cinemagoers with their first glimpses of authentic inner-city life, a short while before Spike Lee and Hoop Dreams and The Wire got there.
Like pretty much every other film in the Jarmusch filmography, what follows is so laidback it's practically on the slab; its longueurs are deliberate, but no less patience-trying for that. The third act shuffles towards the least urgent prison break in motion picture history - the threesome end up in a boat, paddling round and round in circles - which is quite funny as it goes, but the middle stretch sorely needs Benigni's oddball, hiccuping energy to keep the whole thing from flatlining in front of you. The film offered proof you could make a career in American cinema without breaking a sweat, and has accordingly been claimed by film students and other hipsters ever since; its rhythms remain unique, unpredictable, and instructive up to a point.
Down by Law is available on DVD through Soda Pictures, and streaming via the BFI.