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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 <email@example.com>
Early Jarmusch: awkward but heartwarming camaraderie in the America of vacant, overgrown lots and other such blight
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.
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