Down By Law (1986)

Rates: * * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? Recommended by my work colleague Ben.

Cast, crew, etc.

A couple of New Orleans fringe dwellers get railroaded into jail; Jack, a pimp framed as a paedophile, and Zak, a radio DJ framed for murder. There they become cellmates with Bob, an eccentric Italian who doesn’t speak much English and who may, or may not, have killed someone.

These three unlikely companions annoy each other at first, but their forced proximity eventually makes them into something rather like friends. Then Bob comes up with an escape plan, and the three go on the lam; an eventful few days slogging through the bayou, trying to find a way out of the net closing in around them.

Jim Jarmusch’s third feature takes his trademark, deadpan humour and gift for off kilter characterisation, and presents these in a much more polished form than his earlier films. Legendary DP Robby Mueller, cinematographer to Wim Wenders, shoots the bejesus out of this; there is one particularly striking shot of a street at night towards the beginning, where the streetlights have little halos around them, and another of a rickety boat moving through a swamp towards the end, that presages all of ‘Dead Man’. And any number of gasp inducing shots in between.

An amazing looking film.

In front of the camera, Tom Waits is terrific as Zak – an earthy, human performance – but the star of the show is Roberto Begnini as Bob. The Italian comic, then almost totally unknown, is hysterical in a riot of a performance; his confused expressions, his stilted delivery, the endless number of funny, quotable lines, it is just a sensation. And in the decades since, he has never been better.

Jarmusch’s films never rely much on plot, and the story here is slight. It is difficult to know what, if anything, you are meant to take away from what happens, and the director himself has described the movie as a ‘fairy tale’, which makes me think: nothing much.

Although there is a hint of a theme along the lines of, life in America is a lottery; the way the boys are thrown in jail even though completely innocent, and the way Bob lands on his feet at the end. Whatever you may have been told are proper American values – hard work, capitalist enterprise – this suggests that there is no rythme or reason to what happens, people are either lucky or they aren’t.

But the real value here is in the texture. This is a hat tip to life’s outsiders; people who won’t, and who probably can’t, live the same way most people do. You imagine Jarmusch includes himself in this category, and his film is a loving and very funny ode to his fellow travellers.

I am a good egg.

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