Down By Law (1986)

“I scream. You scream. We all scream. For ice cream.”

‘Down By Law’, directed by Jim Jarmusch in 1986, is an American independent comedy drama. Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni play three men who are incarcerated in a New Orleans prison. Waits is a DJ who gets caught up in a crime, Lurie a pimp who is entrapped and Benigni an Italian with little English who is arrested for manslaughter. They stage a low-key escape and find themselves lost in the swamps, the two Americans at odds with each other and the Italian bringing them together with food and, ultimately, sanctuary. It’s a raw, unflashy movie with long camera shots and little in the way of twists or unsurprising plot developments. Instead, Jarmusch’s focus is on the relationships between the three men: two innocent of the crime they are locked up for, the third guilty, and yet in reality the two Americans are the most guilt-ridden both from their actions before prison and through their violent reactions to each other whilst in the cell. In many ways the film is an extension of Jarmusch’s series of short vignettes ‘Coffee and Cigarettes‘ with the same preoccupation with apparently aimless conversations that together somehow are greater than the sum of their parts. The look of this film is crucial to Jarmusch’s vision: black and white, slow pans across the city and swamps of Louisiana. There is a stark quality, but through the characterisation and casting there’s a strand of eccentric humour that you can follow into subsequent movies such as the Coen brothers’ ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ fourteen years later.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s blackly comic and beautifully realised with a great performance by Tom Waits. Watch in a double bill with ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’.


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