Down by Law (1986)

Jim Jarmusch’s third feature is difficult to pigeonhole, in what is a stylishly shot piece that works as an offbeat if poetic comedy.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Jim Jarmusch
1986 | USA | Drama/Crime/Comedy | 107 mins | 1.78: 1 | English 
NC16 (passed clean) for some sexual references and nudity

Cast: Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni
Plot: The story of three different men in a Louisiana prison and their eventual journey.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Source: Black Snake Inc.

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate/Offbeat
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Review #1,243

(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray – first published 14 Dec 2015)

Spoilers: Mild

Yes, eight years as a reviewer, and finally I get to see what a Jim Jarmusch film is. It’s never too late I guess. I picked his third feature Down by Law because something drew me to it. Well, it is always a bonus to be able to watch it on Criterion Blu-ray… but what caught my eye was the casting of Roberto Benigni.

His character winds up in the same prison cell as two others – Jack and Zack, played by music artistes John Lurie and Tom Waits respectively. But before they find themselves in that miserable confined space, Jarmusch shows us how they get there.

“My mama used to say that America’s the big melting pot. You bring it to a boil and all the scum rises to the top.”

In what is a film of three distinct acts – the set-up (quite literally), the prison, and the escape, Down by Law works as an offbeat comedy that relies heavily on Jarmusch’s eccentric characterizations of a small-town pimp, a beleaguered radio deejay and an Italian tourist.

The performances are outstanding, their superb chemistry a joy to see. Benigni, in particular, gives the film comic energy, which dovetails bizarrely with the picture’s crisp and formal cinematography (by Robby Muller of Paris, Texas (1984) fame).

It is indeed a strange picture. The prologue, with Jarmusch layering a recurring song (‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’ by Waits) over poetic images of the Louisiana landscape, gives us a taste of the director’s idiosyncratic style, and necessarily preempts us that this is gonna be a wild card of a movie.

Roberto Benigni had never been to America prior to making this film.

It is difficult to pigeonhole Down by Law into any genre or narrative form, but it is a stylish affair with lots of sardonic wit, logic-suspension scenarios and moments of insanity. Its freewheeling nature is refreshing, but Jarmusch’s deliberate pacing means that the film is also intent to find its way, to follow the characters (lost souls, really) in order to chart its own path.

It is a kind of film that comes into being through its natural malleability; I believe Jarmusch’s artistic process was also something similar. In fact, at the press conference at Cannes where it competed for the Palme d’Or, Jarmusch revealed that he got the picture together based on several scenarios and ideas he dreamt up.

Down by Law remains to be one of his hallmark films, and I look forward to seeing more of his works in the near future.

Grade: A




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