Saturday, November 16, 2013
Down by Law
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, Down by Law is the story of three men who are incarcerated at a Louisiana prison as they decide to work together to make an escape. The film is an exploration into the lives of three different men who are accused of different crimes where they rely on each other to deal with their situation. Starring Roberto Benigni, Tom Waits, and John Lurie. Down by Law is a captivating yet visually-entrancing film from Jim Jarmusch.
The film is the simple story of three different men who find themselves in trouble in different circumstances as they’re sent to a prison in Louisiana where they later escape as they try to evade the authorities through its swamp. Yet, these are three men who don’t know each other as they have to work together despite their differences. Two of which in an unemployed radio DJ named Zack (Tom Waits) and a small-time pimp named Jack (John Lurie) are both sent to prison for something they didn’t do as they were set up. Joining them is this Italian immigrant named Bob (Roberto Benigni) who is arrested for manslaughter as he would be the one to lead the escape despite his poor English.
Jim Jarmusch’s screenplay has a unique structure in the way he sets up the story as the first act is about Jack and Zack dealing with their issues in New Orleans where they’re both set up as Zack has a brief encounter with Bob. The second act is about the three men sharing a prison cell in Louisiana as Zack and Jack don’t really like each other as Bob is the wild card who did kill someone but only by accident. The third act is about the three men escaping prison yet they have to encounter something far more terrifying which is the Louisiana swamp where they have no idea where to go and such.
Jarmusch’s direction is very evocative in the way he presents the film as he makes the Louisiana bayou, its small towns, and the city of New Orleans just as important as the characters in the film. Most notably as he aims for something that feels like a mixture of Americana with a European sensibility in the compositions he creates that are simple but also offbeat. Particularly as he maintains an intimacy in the scenes set in the prison cell where it’s a bit claustrophobic but also lively such as a moment where the three men scream “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream” that led the other inmate to do the same. It all plays to that sense that something is going to happen where it would play into their escape from prison.
Much of the scenes set in New Orleans and the Louisiana swamp are much broader in scope with Jarmusch using a lot of medium and some wide shots to create some unique images for the former in the film’s first act. The film’s third act in the swamp are definitely the most entrancing portions of the film where the sense of location adds to an element of suspense in Jarmusch’s direction where the swamp turns out to be something far more menacing because it has that sense of the unknown. Yet, there is some humor that is still prevalent in the form of Bob where he would be the one to find some hope as well as a fitting resolution. Overall, Jarmusch crafts a very engaging and compelling film about three different men who are bounded together by prison as they make a grand escape.
Cinematographer Robby Muller does phenomenal work with the film‘s black-and-white photography to play into the desolate yet vibrant look of New Orleans along with the more ethereal images that he creates with his camera for the scenes set in the swamp as he is one of the film‘s major highlights. Editor Melody London does excellent work with the film‘s editing by aiming for some style with its jump-cuts and transitional cuts to play into the film‘s unique structure as well as its suspense and humor. Set decorator Janet Densmore does fantastic work with some of the film’s minimal set pieces such as the prison cell the three men stay in as well as the shack they find in the middle of the swamp.
Costume designer Carol Wood does nice work with the costumes as it‘s mostly casual including the prison suit’s the three men have to wear. Sound editor John Auerbach does terrific work with the sound to play into the atmosphere of the prison as well as the low-key sounds for the scenes in the swamp. The film’s music by John Lurie is amazing for its low-key yet playful jazz-based score to play into the film’s humor while the film also includes a couple of original songs by Tom Waits that helps with the film’s humor as well as a rendition of Naomi Neville’s It’s Raining by Irma Thomas that adds a key moment to one of the film’s final scenes.
The film’s brilliant cast includes some notable appearances from Billie Neal as one of Jack’s frustrated hookers, Ellen Barkin as Zack’s frustrated and angry girlfriend, and Nicoletta Braschi as an Italian woman that Bob meets late in the film. Robert Benigni is great as the very comical Bob as an Italian immigrant who speaks little English as he tries to find ways to get the spirits going and urge Jack and Zack to escape. John Lurie is superb as Jack as this small-time pimp who is upset over what happened as he tries to figure out what he’ll do once he gets out. Tom Waits is marvelous as Zack as an unemployed radio DJ who tries to figure out how to deal with his time while realizing how troubled the swamp is. Benigni, Lurie, and Waits make one incredible trio in the way they interact together as they are one of the reason for the film’s greatness.
Down by Law is a remarkable film from Jim Jarmusch. Thanks to the fantastic trio of Roberto Benigni, John Lurie, and Tom Waits as well as Robby Muller’s beautiful cinematography. The film is definitely a unique take on the prison escape movie where it focuses on the individuals instead of the plot to escape and such. Even as Jarmusch infuses it with some low-key humor and offbeat situations to make it so much more as it defies convention. In the end, Down by Law is a sensational film from Jim Jarmusch.
Jim Jarmusch Films: Permanent Vacation - Stranger than Paradise - Mystery Train - Night on Earth - Dead Man - Year of the Horse - Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai - Coffee & Cigarettes - Broken Flowers - The Limits of Control - Only Lovers Left Alive - The Auteurs #27: Jim Jarmusch
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