Down By Law (1986)

Local DJ, Zack (Waits), pimp, Jack (Lurie), and Italian tourist, Roberto (Benini) all find themselves locked up in a New Orleans jail, with their own varying level of guilt and responsibility. All three of them are in states of isolation prior to going into prison and the camaraderie they build helps break them out.

The aspects that stand out the most in Down By Law, are: the black and white New Orleans city- and landscapes and the fact that the escape is completely glazed over. The jail break film is less about a jail break and more about taking the time to understand those around us.

From what I can gather from a quick internet search and from watching the movie, the phrase “down by law” appears to be prison slang for a friendship behind bars. This is a perfect title for the subject matter of the film. Strangers, that even have an unfriendly interaction prior to being locked up, grow to appreciate and look out for one another after the time they spend in jail.

An interesting aspect of the film is the fact that the intricacies, or even broad strokes, of the escape are not depicted. The focus is more on the characters, than the escape itself. This is unusual, since so many films that feature a prison break highlight the logistics behind it and the execution (e.g. Shawshank Redemption, Papillon, Escape From Alcatraz, Great Escape) . At the same time, it makes perfect sense given the style and context of the movie. The way that the characters escape from prison is not important. It would potentially even take away from the film. The focus is not on their ingenuity or cunning, but their camaraderie and growing connection. 

The focus on interpersonal development is a through-line in Jarmusch’s films. Characters and story line are developed around finding meaning in life and understanding the differences and similarities of individuality. Down By Law is no exception to this film making style.

I really enjoyed the slow pacing and long shots of the city and landscapes. Cinematographer, Robby Muller, did an excellent job capturing the energy of various areas in and around New Orleans through a black and white medium. 

I had no idea that this was Roberto Benigni’s first film made in the states. Granted, I only really knew him from Life is Beautiful. His character in Down By Law has the child-like comedic essence that I enjoyed from Life is Beautiful. There is something about his energy that makes his performances so fun to watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Directed by: Jim Jarmusch

Cinematography: Robby Müller

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Edited by: Melody London

Music by: Shane Holly

Starring: Tom Waits , John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni

Runtime: 1h 47m

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama

Distributed by: Island Pictures

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