Down by Law (1986)
March 7, 2016 7:08 PM - Subscribe

The story of three different men in a Louisiana prison and their eventual journey.

NYTimes: The excitement of ''Down by Law'' comes not from what it's ''about.'' Reduced to its plot, it is very slight. But the plot isn't the point. The excitement comes from the realization that we are seeing a true film maker at work, using film to create a narrative that couldn't exist on the stage or the printed page of a novel.

''Down by Law'' works on the mind and senses in a completely different fashion. It's an unqualified delight, from its elegiacal opening shots to to its unexpected last scene, which is funny in itself as well as a wicked pun on ''Bob'' Frost's now somewhat tired ''Road Not Taken.''

WaPo: Quoting from old Hollywood genre films about prison (and escape from prison), the movie is magnificently photographed by the German cinematographer Robby Muller in a black-and-white that is at times so evocative and velvety you feel you can touch it, at times as otherworldly as a dream. Jarmusch often shoots from the low level of traditional Japanese cinema, and the wide-angle lenses he prefers give "Down by Law" a sense of open-endedness.

Roger Ebert: On the surface, it's grim and relentless, but there's a thread of humor running through everything, and that takes the curse off. We are never quite sure that Jarmusch intends us to take anything seriously, and there are times when the actors seem to be smiling to themselves as they growl through their lines.

AV Club: With music and songs by stars John Lurie and Tom Waits, and stark black-and-white photography by the great Robby Müller (Paris, Texas), the film breaks off from the tourists on Bourbon Street and finds inspiration in the city's decaying underbelly–"a sad and beautiful world," as Waits neatly poeticizes it. Lurie and Waits play two ne'er-do-well lowlifes on parallel tracks; both are framed for separate crimes, and they're assigned a cell together at Orleans Parish Prison, where their similarities naturally lead them to resent each other. Lurie, a small-time pimp who knows nothing about women, sometimes marks time with fantasies about getting out of jail, while Waits, an unemployed DJ, will go several days without saying a word. Jarmusch adds a much-needed comic foil in Roberto Benigni, who reads English from a homemade phrasebook ("If looks could kill, I am dead now") and appreciates the poetry of Walt Whitman and "Bob" Frost. The three tunnel out of prison together, but in the film's most pointed visual joke, they escape to a place that looks dispiritingly familiar at first glimpse.

posted by MoonOrb (4 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The "i scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream" scene is delicious.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:20 PM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

The elevator pitch - two professional musicians and a goofy comedian star in a prison escape caper set in comic book New Orleans - sounds awful. Don't get me wrong - I love Benigni - but putting him in this sounds like casting Harpo Marx as the fourth guy in Escape from Alcatraz. (Though, the wax-faced mannequin dance partner scene would have been pretty fantastic.)

But, somehow this turned into a beautiful film. There's just enough darkness to make the farce enjoyable, and the cinematography and pacing are absolutely perfect. The actors are believable throughout. (I'm guessing there's not a whole lot of acting involved. And that's great.) Jarmusch manages to create something that's both funny and moving in a way that hundreds of "quirky" indy comedies fail to do every year. I enjoy throughly every time I see it.
posted by eotvos at 10:42 AM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

casting Harpo Marx as the fourth guy in Escape from Alcatraz.

Oh god, I would watch the hell out of that film.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:10 PM on June 9, 2016

posted by .kobayashi. at 6:12 PM on June 9, 2016

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