Two innocent people are arrested. An interesting third person, with broken English, joins them in their cell. On his idea, they decide to escape from the prison. Their journey is the rest of the movie.
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DJ Zack and pimp Jack end up in prison for being too laid-back to avoid being framed for crimes they didn't commit. They end up sharing a cell with eccentric Italian optimist Roberto, whose limited command of the English language is both entertaining and infuriating. More useful to them is the fact that Roberto knows an escape route. Written by
Michael Brooke <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Zack writes the number of the days that he's spent in cellar on the wall. Before he fights Jack for the first time, he angrily writes two big lines (two days). In the next scene with Roberto they are normal length. See more »
Julie, what're you doing out here?
Just watching the light change.
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Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law is one of the closest things I've seen to poetry on film, but not poetry in the sense of dialog nor musicality; poetry in the sense that this is a film that fully understands the beauty of cinema and cinematic presentation. The film opens by slowly panning the camera to the left through the town of New Orleans, which looks to be such an interesting and quietly beautiful place that it seems almost criminal of Jarmusch to inevitably confined to the four walls of a prison. Jarmusch presents us New Orleans as a city that basks in its imperfections and naturalism, cast through beautiful black and white cinematography and set to the glorious, almost jazzy sounds of John Lurie and Tom Waits, who also star in the film. The opening four minutes, and the remainder of the film, with its shot-structure, the intense focus on characters instead of plot and the action, and the dense visuals on display, showcases some of the deepest beauty and poetry of which cinema is capable.
The film opens by focusing on three separate men, unknown to each other at the time, as they are each arrested and booked before being places in the same cell. Both Zack (Tom Waits), a B-grade disc jockey and Jack (John Lurie), a full-time pimp, have been set up by outsiders, whilst their cellmate Bob (Roberto Benigni) is an Italian tourist, who speaks broken English, is in jail for manslaughter. Upon showing each of their arrests, the three spend time in their cramped cell playing cards and engaging in occasionally hostile conversation, particularly Zack and Jack, whereas Bob finds himself rather positive about the entire situation.
After not spending too much time in the clink, the three men decide they want out and craft what may indeed be the most anticlimactic prison break in the history of cinema. The three proceed to run for the hills, eventually crossing the humid bayou of New Orleans into unknown territory. The three men, in turn, try to seek refuge in the middle of nowhere until law enforcement dies down and the three can form a plan of how they want to spend their lives on the run.
One criticism I can foresee about Down by Law is how unremarkable the prison break actually is; it's literally a fade-to-black sequence where, one moment, the three are behind bars, then the next, the three are escaping through an underground tunnel. However, this is further proof that Jarmusch doesn't have any desire to make this film about process and narrative plot-pointing. At the end of the day, that sets up developed situations and locations and not always developed, instrumental characters that are instrumental to the story. Jarmusch makes this film entirely focused on dialog and eccentricities of the characters; consider the famous "ice cream" scene in prison, where Zack defines the act of "screaming" to Bob, who then recalls the common phrase of "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream," adding his Italian drawl to the phrase. The three men begin to harmlessly chant and dance around their cell, eventually inciting the majority of the unseen prisoners to chant. The scene is humorous because of its inanity and general harmlessness; out of all the things that could happen in a prison between three men, the fact that Jarmusch included this is hilarious in itself.
The film persists on with many low-key, delightful scenes like this, and never does Jarmusch run out of ideas for these characters. The only fault here is that he does, admittedly, take a bit too long to get going, lingering on the opening scenes of how these men are put into prison instead of watching them spend time behind bars. Uniformly, however, this is a film of cinematic poetry, defined largely by its flawless cinematography - done by Robby Müller in a manner that accentuates the natural beauty of the locales - in addition to Jarmusch's slow-moving camera pans that make for a nice touch of stylistic flair to a film that could've ostensibly been made without any. Then there's the dynamic abilities of the actors and the hilarity of Jarmusch's screen writing that further complement the film and its wits; Down by Law is one of the quirkiest pieces of American independent cinema to be found in the 1980's and that, in addition to its dialog and lovable, if scummy, characters add that extra layer of craft.
Starring: Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Bengini. Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
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