Down by Law (1986) Poster


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No action, all mood – but it goes down like a cool beer on a hot summer evening
gogoschka-117 July 2014
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 action.

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.

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A Pure Joy
gavin694216 January 2014
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.
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Male bonding, bumbling and natural behavior among three men on the fringe
msroz2 July 2012
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.
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atmospheric without much tension
SnoopyStyle7 July 2015
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.
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Subtle grace masquerades as jail-break film
sidereal27 December 1998
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.
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Another great movie by Jim Jarmusch
tim_age28 May 2002
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.
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Brilliant in every way
bejasus29 July 2005
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.
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Fascinating filmmaking far away from Hollywood
andibert27 January 2004
Wow, what a movie. Far away from Hollywood, Jim Jarmusch creates a world where you don't need drama, pathos and action to fascinate the watcher. Because fascinating is exactly what this movie is. A plot in the classical sense is almost completely missing; the scenes, in their simplicity sometimes reminding of theater, follow each other without ever creating real suspense; neither griping action nor complex dialogues are there to excite the spectator. And still, with ease Jarmusch fills more than a hundred minutes with a story you won't take your eyes off. It is hard to tell what the atmosphere of the movie is really based on, the characters, the setting, entirely in black and white, the music - probably all of it. Again, like in Jarmusch's later movie "Dead man", speed is an important factor: everything moves slowly, without haste, as there is no dramatic climax you could hurry towards; yet, boring is a word that certainly doesn't fit this piece of cineastic art. On the other hand, though some of the scenes seem quite surrealistic, it is not a really artistic movie breaking with all the traditional concepts of filmmaking; it is more a movie in classic shape with an unconventional story, not trying to shock, to confuse or even to make you think so much; this movie doesn't need all this to get your complete attention. You could probably speculate a lot about the meaning of the movie; to me, this seems highly unnecessary. Just let it unfold its atmosphere. Judge yourselves, but I was excited in a very special way by every scene of this motion picture, giving me one of my best cineastic experiences of the recent time.
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Noire Fairy Tale: Surprised by Delight
jk-9618 March 2005
This movie was a total surprise to me. I'm sure it's very famous, but somehow had never seen it before. From the beginning scenes, I was expecting a gritty low life, wind up in the gutter, down and out kind of crime movie and that was fine with me, especially if set in New Orleans. At the same time there was a surprising freshness about it, that caught my attention, like a wake up call. Literally, there was writing on the wall that signaled "this is not that kind of movie!" The opening scenes reminded me of the opening of Sopranos -- the rolling shot of a neighborhood with an ominous sounding song in the background. (Were the Sopranos producers inspired by this film?) But once Roberto Benigni appeared on the scene, announcing that "Life is Sad and Beautiful" the whole story began to feel more like a strange fairy tale. Throughout the film, I appreciated the way the director took his time, letting the story evolve slowly, giving the characters time to develop their tenuous bonds. I could watch this again and again, knowing I would keep discovering hidden meanings, references, and ironies. Loved it!!!!
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spoliers........ trust
shaunfogarty4 March 2004
Jim Jarmusch trusts his camera, his directing, his writing, and most of all his performers. This is a gem of a film, without pretense. The story and film just move, sluggishly chugging forward to an ending that is really more of a dissolve. The story is ultimately of little importance, just enough movement to show us a bit of the big jokester in the skies irony. I was struck by the similarity's to Dead Man, similarities quite aside the black and white photography. The enigmatic character at the center, the drifting in and out of the main characters, the use of the boat, the disposal of the usual plot devices, the cutting away of obvious scenes (like the "how' of the escape) I wish more films displayed this sort of ease with themselves. Great stuff, 8/10.
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