In Down By Law, three men are arrested and convicted of separate crimes and decide to escape from prison.
One summer in New Orleans, Zack (Tom Waits), Jack (John Lurie), and Roberto (Roberto Benigni) are arrested for three separate crimes. Zack, an out of work radio DJ, is given money to drive a car across town. The car ends up not only be stolen but with a body in the trunk. Jack, a pimp, is caught entering a hotel room based on a tip from a “friend” where an underage girl (and the cops) were waiting. The two men become cell mates and eventually meet their third cellmate, Roberto, a zany immigrant that apparently killed a man. Soon, Roberto tells Jack and Zack that he knows a way to escape from prison and the men break out.
Jim Jarmusch films have a history of being hit or miss with me. There have been some films that I can appreciate but never really end up liking, and others, like Down By Law, that I’m smitten with almost instantly. Down By Law is a film with very little plot, but with great characters and dialogue. The relationships between the three men are all unique but we know what they are thinking even if they are not speaking. Roberto is the wild card of the bunch, adding a mostly comedic twist to an otherwise fairly serious movie. Waits and Lurie both play the role of guys that are too cool to act like they care about anyone else, but actually end up depending on each other.
Shot entirely in black and white on a fairly miniscule budget, Down By Law is an indie film lover’s dream. Toss in Lurie and Waits and I would watch it even if it wasn’t a very good movie. I had procrastinated watching Down By Law because I wasn’t entirely sold on Jarmusch as a writer/director but now I need to rectify my indifference and get caught up on the man’s filmography. Writing about Down By Law doesn’t seem to do it any justice; and nothing I had read about it made it seem all that special. Upon viewing, however, I was instantly absorbed in the story and characters. The black and white makes New Orleans seem dirty, prison seem dire, and even the swamp seem claustrophobic.
The Criterion Collection treatment of Down By Law is superb. The picture is so clear that the film looks like it was shot using the highest tech possible, though it likely was not. The film not only looks and sounds amazing but the special features were specially designed for the release. Fans of Jarmusch or Down By Law will not regret picking this one up.
I give it 5 Tom Waits makes the best DJ out of 5.