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A cult classic - and yet still relatively little known. Jim Jarmusch is
a master when it comes to creating atmosphere (and nobody uses
stretches of silence to better comedic effect than he does). Shot in
beautiful black and white, this tale of three prisoners who make for
very unlikely companions is all mood, deadpan humour and practically no
Don't expect a story - just enjoy the ride, the dialogues (consisting mainly of the word 'F***' - unless it's Benigni talking: his chaotic, broken English lines are another highlight of the film) and the fantastic soundtrack by John Lurie and Tom Waits. Perhaps the epitome of a cult movie, this one goes down like a cool beer on a hot summer evening (and as with all cult movies, it is best seen with an audience that already knows and loves the film). A minimalistic comedy masterpiece. 9 stars out of 10.
Favorite Films: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls054200841/
Lesser-known Masterpieces: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls070242495/
Favorite Low-Budget and B-movies: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls054808375/
Favorite TV-Shows reviewed: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls075552387/
One of the most frequently heard criticisms of Jarmusch's work is that the pace is slow. I would like to make a case for patience. After all, if true beauty and grace were delivered in one massive hit, our poor brains and hearts would not withstand the blow. In Down By Law, Jarmusch invites us to take some time, some real time and devote it to getting deeply involved with his characters. Men in crisis. Misfits, jailbirds, heartbreakingly human. We accompany them on their journey, their escape from their confines. It is a truly epic journey on a small geographical scale. We watch as they begin to mirror one another, as their individual egos become inextricably enmeshed in one another. We watch a friendship form. And how can we begrudge the time Jarmusch takes for this glorious exposition? How can we do anything but marvel at the fine detail in which the scenes are drawn, at the subtle movements of our heroes? Every gesture signifies worlds of meaning and consequence. And Jarmusch does it better, with more skill and with more compassion than anyone. If you are prepared to get involved, if you are brave enough to commit to the journey, you will be rewarded with a kind of epiphany that few films can offer.
The story of three different men (Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto
Benigni) in a Louisiana prison and their eventual journey.
This film is a natural progression from "Stranger Than Paradise". Lurie returns as a lead, and the music of Screamin' Jay Hawkins is replaced with Tom Waits. If Hawkins and Waits know each other, I have no idea, but their music styles are not far removed.
Although Waits is among my favorite actors (he excels at playing villains), the standout performance here is Benigni. How much English he knew at the time I am not sure, but he brings a comic mischief to the film, and is the most light-hearted despite being potentially the most dangerous.
In New Orleans, Radio DJ Zack (Tom Waits) is berated by his girlfriend
Laurette (Ellen Barkin) for losing his job. He gets $1000 to drive a
car across town but the cops stop him and find a dead body in the
trunk. Jack (John Lurie) is a pimp who is offered a new young white
girl. Before he notices that she's underage, cops bust in and arrest
him. They end up in the same cell and Roberto (Roberto Benigni) who
speaks little English is brought in. He writes down phrases that strike
him. He tells them that he's a card cheat who killed a man with the
pool 8-ball. Then he leads them on a breakout.
The camera lingers in slow moving long continuous scenes. The sparse settings give a surreal feel to it all. Everything has a dreamlike quality. It has an interesting atmosphere but it doesn't have much tension which is Jim Jarmusch's style.
During the setup, I wasn't sure what this was about. We see Tom Waits
and John Lurie each get set up, framed, and sent to jail. Each has a
girl friend who is inessential to the story and disappears after these
introductions, but they comment on these men and their lives.
The men and their women are living in rundown areas and on the fringe. The movie does a great job photographically of immersing us in these poor areas and giving them a beauty all their own. And it is also as if to say that all the people we are seeing are human beings too and part of the world's stage, as well as all fools too as mortals be.
Waits is a disc jockey who loses one job after another because he's independent. Lurie is a pimp.
In jail they are joined by an Italian still learning the language, played very comically by Roberto Benigni. In fact, it is at that point that the comic element comes to the fore, as we see how these three men living in one cell interact with one another. And that becomes largely what this part of the movie is about. It's fairly unpredictable and amusing. Some of it may have been improvised. Although there are frictions, the men bond with one another, but not too much. Their circumstances influence how they behave toward one another.
Although Benigni is slighter of build than his cell mates, can't speak English well, and seems a clown, his character continually brings us some surprises as the story develops. This adds to the fun.
The three men escape jail, and the rest of the story follows them through the chase, the swamps of Lousiana and what refuges they can find. The comic element fades away to a large extent and the movie's tone becomes simply wry and ironic. An interesting moral situation occurs when, during the pursuit, Benigni cannot swim and the others must decide whether or not to save their own skins or risk losing them by helping Benigni.
They are in an existential plight. The whole movie has this existential tone to it. The men do not philosophize. They don't ruminate much about the situations they find themselves in. They don't cooperate all that much. They don't for the most part exhibit much skill in the wilderness, yet they manage to make their way. Their leadership seems always to shift. It's an anarchic set of relations.
They create their own humor and laughter, their own kind of poetry, even their own jail window. We see that men need art, poetry, laughter, friendship. They also need women, and this too is shown. They need on occasion to fight. These men living on the fringe that most of us will never meet show us some basic things about human life. This is a large virtue of this movie. The men behave naturally. With all of society's conventions, we need to be reminded that men have natures and behave naturally.
This is a very good movie.
I've seen a couple of Jarmusch movies and except for Dead Man (which I
thought was an incredible bore), they were all great.
Down By Law is probably one his best known flicks and is a very good low budget movie. It features Tom Waits, who's not only a fine musician but proves to be a decent actor as well; John Lurie, who also wrote the excellent soundtrack (Waits delivered the opening and end-credits track btw); Roberto Benigni, who nowadays is most famous for directing the Oscar-winning Italian film "La Vita E Bella".
The movie deals about three guys who meet in prison and escape. It reminded me of "O Brother Where Are Thou?" and, perhaps because of it being filmed in black and white, of old 40's movies about escaping prisoners (can't think of a good example, but you get the picture).
Three things I liked very much about this movie:
1. It's incredibly funny, especially Benigni made me laugh every time he opened his mouth - He irritated me highly in "La Vita E Bella" so that must mean something....
2. The frame of the camera is very well used. Look at the scene where Lurie counts the money and a hooker is laying behind him on the bed and the scene after that. Another example is when Benigni is dancing with a lady and the other two guys are continuing their breakfast in the back.
3. It's very hard to pinpoint when the story takes place; it's timeless in more than one way, obviously helped by the lack of color.
All in all, this one comes highly recommended.
I first saw Down By Law when it first came out, and loved it. I watched it again recently, and it really hasn't aged at all. In fact, it has gotten even better. I'm not sure there's another movie like it (unless the other Jarmusch ones are -- I haven't seen them). There are very few movies that spend so much time on character development that still have great plots. Like the "Big Easy" where it is filmed, this one takes its time but has an easy charm once the plot gets where it was going. The dialogue is wonderfully written, and better acted. Each scene is like a work of art in how it is staged. The soundtrack uses one of the best albums ever recorded, "Rain Dogs" by Tom Waits, who stars. One of my all time favorites.
Down by Law is a film that has mesmerized me for years. The first time I
saw it, it sunk into me like the smile from a homeless person. It told me
something I should've already known.
I've heard people use the word "quirky", when drawing comparisons to a Jarmusch character, but, I like the phrase: "Spot On". He has captured man's fear within himself, and, the ability to hide that fear. It takes a director of great courage and knowledge of self to pull that one off without boring you.
If you're a fan of Joel Schumaucher or James Cameron, this is not the film for you. But if your a fan of people, and, the human condition, the mirror reflects back, 2 hours at a time, and Jarmusch is right behind it.
Jim Jarmusch's DOWN BY LAW is one of the art-house productions that the
American independent director made his name with in the 1980s.
At this point in his career, Jarmusch wanted to depict not the glitzy, glamorous America of Hollywood films, but rather the side no one ever talks about: vacant lots overgrown with weeds, the ramshackle homes of the working poor, and empty suburban streets. As the film opens, Jarmusch sets the stage by depicting New Orleans from this angle in a series of shots made from a moving car. Only then we see how a small-town pimp (John Lurie) and an itinerant DJ (Tom Waits) get themselves arrested after they've each accepted a job from a seedy friend. They subsequently end up sharing a jail cell, into which one day an Italian immigrant (Roberto Benigni) is also placed. The plot of the film is the developing camaraderie between these three men. The Italian's bumbling antics act initially aggravate his cellmates -- Benigni's role serve as comic relief against the morose behavior of the other two characters. DOWN BY LAW begins as a drama portraying the underbelly of a Louisiana town, but by the end it has transformed into absurdist comedy.
Lurie's acting is fine, representing his character convincingly as a pathetic d-bag. Benigni might seem like he's playing himself, but his English is reputedly much better than the broken phrases he offers in the film. Nicoletta Braschi appears as the Italian's love interest, a role that must have been easy to play since Benigni and her are married in real life. I've never thought Tom Waits was a great actor, however.
In terms of cinematography, this is a major step forward for Jarmusch. Bringing on cameraman Robby Müller, most famous for his work with Wim Wenders in the 1970s, Jarmusch shot many scenes with blatant diagonals and claustrophobic framing that suggests the prison in which these characters do time. It's certainly the most geometrically striking film of Jarmusch's career.
This is an entertaining film, with many fine touches. If I give it less than a rave, it's just because I can't completely get into these black and white portrayals of contemporary lowlifes (I have a problem with early Kaurismäki for the same reason--his aesthetic was very similar to Jarmusch's.) But I think this film has held up pretty well three decades after its release, and I'd recommend it for anyone looking to explore Jarmusch's work.
...then "Down By Law" should be among those to consider.
Great cinematography, a superb soundtrack by John Lurie & Tom Waits, and brilliant performances by the three lead actors as well as Ellen Barkin and Nicoletta Braschi (Benigni's wife).
In my hometown Berlin, this movie is one of the evergreens during the popular open air cinema season and it very well deserves it.
I screama, You screama, We all screama for .. DOWN BY LAW!
There are two scenes I find particularly noteworthy. One is the opening sequence which is a long take passing through a small town, the other is the three escapees journey in a boat through a seemingly endless swamp. See for yourself. No explanations required.
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