Sunday, May 03, 2009

Down By Law (1986)

“Have you seen ‘Down By Law?’” This is a question that you might get asked at practically any moment if you spend enough time hanging out with folks on the artsier end of the spectrum, as I do. You should give serious consideration to making the answer to that question a “Yes.” This is one of those films that defines cult classic. Just being able to discuss it will give you significant street cred in certain crowds, and it’s a good movie, too.

“Down by Law” is written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, who described this black-and-white film as a “neo-Beat noir comedy.” The story concerns three men who are imprisoned together in Louisiana. Zach (Tom Waits), a down-on-his-luck DJ; Jack (John Lurie), a down-on-his-luck pimp; and Bob (Roberto Benigni), an Italian tourist imprisoned for manslaughter spend much of the film entertaining themselves in their tiny cell. Zach and Jack tend to grate on each other, but Bob’s childlike charm is irresistible. In one memorable scene, the three stomp around the cell chanting “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” Interestingly, it is Bob who comes up with an escape plan, which lands them all in the Louisiana swamp enjoying the same dynamic they had in their cell.

Early on, I figured this movie would be about unjust imprisonment, but it isn’t, even though all three guys got something of a raw deal. This is just a story of three guys interacting as they deal with the extreme boredom of prison and the extreme stress of escaping. It is interesting that the swamp proves to be just as isolating as their tiny cell was. The wilderness forces them to stay together just as their cell did, so their relationships are unchanged. It is not until they have the option of separating that they feel themselves truly “escaped,” and it is then that their relationships evolve. The one difference seen in the swamp is that it becomes much more apparent that Bob is quite intelligent, and that it is merely his limited English that makes him appear the buffoon.

This film is extremely slow-paced, and filmed single-camera style in black and white. It’s really hilarious, but the humor is slow-moving and subtle. Audiences reared on a strict diet of big-budget popcorn movies will find “Down by Law” hard to digest. If, however, you have developed a taste for movies that require a little more patience, then I highly recommend it.

4 stars

No comments: