The Endless Road

Down by Law (1986)

Tom Waits in Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law | Janus Films

Jack’s eyes are open, but he’s no longer in jail. His eyes are open, but Jack might as well be asleep. He’s dreaming while wide awake; he’s there, but he isn’t. No, he’s in a white limousine—a Lincoln—that’s come to pick him up and carry him away from Orleans Parish Prison. There are four beautiful naked women already waiting inside the fantasy chariot. They have coke, but Jack tells them no: “I’m gonna just be enjoying the luxury of the car and the girls.” Jack smiles to himself. He might as well be talking to himself, but his cellmate, Zack, listens on in the background, shaking his head at the implausible reverie of his forced acquaintance. Then, the door to Jack’s white carriage closes, and it carts him away while music unlike anything he’s ever heard plays inside a vast space you wouldn’t guess from the exterior. By this point, Jack’s eyes are finally closed. He’s driving off into the city, while Zack reclines in the cell bunk bed behind him, shaking his head and laughing: “You’re such an asshole.” But Jack can’t hear him—he’s already gone. He’s gone, and he’ll be going, going, going, forever.

Bookended by the post-industrial Midwestern hellscapes of Stranger Than Paradise and the twilight tourist Americana of Mystery Train, we find ourselves in the bayous of New Orleans, where a pimp, a radio DJ, and an Italian traveler all wind up squarely in jail. Jim Jarmusch opens Down by Law, the third installment in this unofficial trilogy of travel films, with Tom Waits’s coarse growl whispering over the tune to his “Jockey Full of Bourbon.” Robby Müller’s camera sweeps past black and white scenes of a Louisiana on the move, another patch in Jarmusch’s great American quilt. “Hey little bird, fly away home,” Waits repeats on the track’s refrain while murky swamps, mausoleums, houses both ramshackle and stately, empty lots, factories, and side streets that could belong to any old American town glide smoothly by us, yet faster than we can really take it all in. Waits’s words are an ironic sentiment for the ensuing film, about three men for whom home will forever be a distant dream, like naked girls in a big white limo.

People are going somewhere in the films of Jim Jarmusch, whether physically or otherwise. Drifters and tourists and struggling creatives; placeless deadbeats, lowlifes, and hustlers without a home; burnt-out vampires and zombies freshly risen from the grave. It’s what’s come to define the iconic independent director’s body of work dating back to his debut feature, Permanent Vacation, even if his characters have slowed down as the years have dragged on and as the director has aged. But, to a certain extent, Jarmusch’s characters are always looking for somewhere, something new, and the question always remains of whether they’ll find it. 

Though his influences are famously Japanese and European arthouse of the early 20th century, Jarmusch’s films are distinctly American. It’s perhaps no more evident than in the very genre that the director has frequently made his personal playground for decades. Being on the move, journeying from point A to point B, never finding contentment in the current place and time—or maybe it’s not that you can’t find it, it’s that you can’t allow yourself to enjoy it. Because there must be somewhere else, somewhere that’s superior to the place you’ve found yourself in. It’s all so very American: striving, searching, reaching for some concept of what’s better instead of actual betterment. The road trip film is the quintessential genre of the American Dream. We should always be looking to the future, even if there isn’t one. 

It’s a line of thinking that defines the characters of Zack (Tom Waits) and Jack (John Lurie), two men stuck running in place in New Orleans. With their rhyming monikers, there is a playful irony in their stark differences and indisputable similarities, inspired by the real-life musicians who play them. Lurie and Jack are post-punk cool, and Waits and Zack are bluesy beatniks. The two fictional characters butt heads the most in how uniformly stubborn they are, rarely willing to meet in the middle for a compromise that might ding their pride yet benefit both.

So, it makes sense that they end up in the same place for the same exact reason: set up by a con man they fell for once prior, they believed themselves too smart to fall a second time. They’re prideful men, yes, but they’re hard up for cash—they’re always hard up for cash—so the snake oil salesmen know that with enough needling, they’ve got a couple of suckers in the pocket. And the women in their lives are sick of the same shit, too. Before the duo wind up in prison without trial, their women give them guff about their infuriating attitude towards life that helped them get there. Zack wastes his money on killer duds and doesn’t worry when a radio station deems him too difficult to work with; Jack, meanwhile, throws his cash into gambling and drugs, indifferent towards the women in his employ as their pimp. 

While Zack’s soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, Laurette (Ellen Barkin), turns his apartment into a bombsite, howling and shrieking out of exhaustion more than anger, Zack just lets her. When Jack’s sex worker rides his ass for his laughable management skills, he just lets her. The two men are more than eager to provoke one another, but Zack in particular only pushes back on Laurette when she threatens the sanctity of his shoes, those totems of immediate pleasure that carry no burden of past or future—unlike Laurette herself. The future is a blank slate of endless possibility, but Zack and Jack can’t be bothered to put in the commitment that said possibility requires in the present. Maybe it’s because there’s too much pressure; maybe it’s because making plans is safer than following through. 

The paradox of Down by Law is that going to jail might be the best thing that could ever have happened to Jack and Zack—and maybe Roberto (Robert Benigni), too, the untethered Italian tourist who acts as the additive for the pair’s chemical instability, thrown into the slammer sometime after them for kind-of-accidentally killing a man he cheated (and subsequently enraged) by throwing an eight-ball at his head. Without Roberto, the duo would likely have stagnated in their odd-couple routine in jail for the rest of their lives, removed from their prior banal existences but forever attached to them. It’s the spritely Italian—assisted by his book of irreverent English phrases—who adds some slapstick farce to the film’s tone, and uncovers an escape route during his time out in the prison yard. Suddenly, Jack and Zack, Zack and Jack, two different men who are at once exactly the same, are allowed to start anew. They squandered the lives that they’d been dealt, and for whatever reason are offered this gift of resurrection. It’s not like they’d done anything to deserve it—on the contrary. But the universe doesn’t hand out second chances every day. 

Since Jarmusch’s films tend to be constructed by identifying individual pieces, or people, and finding a narrative somewhere between them, it leaves much of his work consequently open-ended. On the one hand, the ballad of Jack and Zack could be seen as a simple, poetic fable of unlikely friends and new beginnings. But there’s inextricable meaning rooted within the road ahead in its very open-endedness, a road that brims with potential and transformative power, and the promise of a better life. But will it be taken? The film proposes Zack and Jack this ultimate question in tangible form—a fork in the road, going East or West. They leave Roberto behind, the only one of the trio who is given the gift of permanence instead. Roberto, whose placeless presence in America is left up to the imagination, is the one offered a dream home there: a beautiful Italian immigrant woman named Nicoletta (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s real-life wife) and the restaurant she operates near the border of Texas, practically the mirage the men believe it to be after traversing the untamed swamps of the Louisiana bayou, starving and slowly unraveling their minds. While Roberto can give himself fully to Nicoletta, it’s here that Jack and Zack are allowed to complete their transformation, donning the clothes of Nicoletta’s deceased uncle and preparing to set off on their second acts.


I came away from Down by Law initially wanting to write about how the endless road was symbolic of an ironic sort of freedom. For men who can’t be bothered to deal with the responsibility of the present, the fork in road on the border of Texas offers the most tangible articulation of this intangible future. The promise of potential that may never come, a freedom from the constraints of hustling and capitalism and the people who demand that you conform to it. Zack and Jack are now free from their nagging women, free from their vacant, disillusioning jobs, free to become entirely different men. They are now able to change themselves without the accountability that real change and improvement requires of them; they have been given this blank slate without the cause to deserve it. But, more than that, the fork in the road offers Zack and Jack the ultimate autonomy: freedom from the burden of being. The duo gets what they’ve always wanted, a life lived constantly on the potential rather than the palpable. They can evade the obligation of personhood at all—their lives can now forever be focused on what lies ahead. 

But then a couple things happened. While in the thick of writing this essay, I read an article in The Cut about a show I didn’t watch and a book I didn’t read, but was struck by the article and its subjects, the people who did read the book and watch the show (Fleishman Is in Trouble). The article chronicled the wealthy women, wives and mothers, who used to live in New York City and now largely reside in the surrounding suburbs and at the top of the economic heap, yet, like the characters in the fictional story, are still plagued by social inadequacy, domestic exhaustion, and this idea of “more”—the best private school to send their kids to, the perfect bathtub for their fixer-upper, the right amount of money and status that will keep them from ever needing “more” again. A very comfortable form of societal malaise.

Fleishman Is in Trouble and the ensuing article admittedly have nothing to do with Down by Law, and the article is flawed in its interrogation of its subjects and of privilege, allowing the women to publicly self-flagellate without any real flagellation from the article itself. But, strangely, the article and its contextualization of class and money recontextualized my aims for this essay. I thought about my perspectives on the road onward for Jack and Zack, and I thought about my own journey, when it will end. 

When will my pestering and slightly gratuitous fixation on money—how much I have, how much I’m spending, how much I need for rent—be a thing of the past? Will it ever? I’m not even in a precarious financial situation (nor am I in an exceedingly comfortable one, however). But I want the limo with girls and coke driving me away to a better life. I get the obsession with needing more, I get the imagined tomorrow of a more contented and less worrisome present. I thought, too, about how the women from the article are on an endless road, one they chose but one also cultivated by the culture they live in. To someone like me, their plight is laughable. They have everything, and it’s still not enough because they are entrenched in a lifestyle that will only ever demand more and more, an insatiable beast eating its own tail—the real American Dream. It’s not freedom, it’s a prison. But, like Zack’s shiny boots, this essay afforded me a pleasant rupture in my own travels—a distraction of immediacy amidst the ceaselessness of forging onward. When I finish writing it, where to next? That’s always the question, isn’t it?

So, I reconsidered my initial consideration of the fork in the road, the journey that lies ahead for Zack and Jack. Perhaps it’s the ultimate freedom, but perhaps it’s all in the designs of the real American Dream, the one that doesn’t get you from A to B, doesn’t get you to a place at all. Rather, it’s a journey that doesn’t have an end, and often never will because it’s one we’ve all been conditioned to be on regardless of class or where we come from. Thus, Down by Law leaves its characters in this indeterminate purgatory: is the road a gift of emancipation, or another prison of capitalistic longing that they are willingly condemning themselves to? There’s an irony to Jarmusch’s pulling from international arthouse, whose lackadaisical pacing can be seen as a reflection of the values of the cultural work ethic at large, and supplanting elements onto films in a country whose perspective on work is seen by outsiders as an absurd and dystopian death sentence. 

Roberto, a poetry fan like his director, ruminates on what he calls Robert Frost’s “A Road Less Traveled,” back when the trio lucks out and finds shelter during their stint on the lam. Of course, he really means “The Road Not Taken, Frost’s famous poem about finding oneself at two paths diverged and choosing the one seemingly less traveled. It’s been construed as an expression of the enormous weight in assessing one’s life choices and the virtues of nonconformity against the mainstream. Ultimately, the work is more arch than that—the narrator subtly reflects that the roads are the same, and it’s inferred that either one would have left him with similar regret towards a forever unknown and undiscovered choice (apparently the poem was a joke about an indecisive friend). 

It’s a blunt and literal allusion to what’s to come in Down by Law, as Zack and Jack themselves find two roads diverged in a wood, one going East and one going West, according to Nicoletta. Which one goes where? Well, she doesn’t remember, and when they arrive at the fork, they realize that the sign she had told them would be there isn’t. All they know is that they will each choose a path and go their separate ways, and that’s what matters. Regardless of which road goes where, we come to understand that the roads will lead our protagonists to more or less the exact same place—even if Zack really does make it to California, and Jack does manage to find his way back to New York. Zack and Jack are two sides of the same coin, after all. There’s the sense that, deep down, Zack and Jack understand this, too. Still, we’re all trying to pick the road less traveled—to maintain our individualism, to get to our version of some future American paradise; to finally stop in one spot, relax, look around, and feel satisfied with where we’ve ended up. The only problem is all the roads are relatively the same, and they may go on forever.