Down By Law (1986)

Down By Law (1986)

“Why do ya always gotta go fuck up your own future, huh?”

Three oddball prisoners (Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni) escape through the Louisiana bayou.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Black Comedy
  • Deep South
  • Escape
  • Framed
  • Misfits
  • Prisoners

Jim Jarmusch’s character-driven prison-break film — a follow-up to his groundbreaking debut, Stranger Than Paradise (1984) — has many fans, but I’m not one of them. None of the three lead characters is especially appealing, and since we never get a chance to know any of them particularly well, we don’t really care what happens to them. Most annoying of all is Benigni’s chirpy immigrant “Roberto”; while many find his riffs in this film (i.e., the “I scream for ice cream” chant) hilarious, I found them insufferable.

Down By Law clearly bows towards surrealistic impulses, with several moments in the film conveniently defying reality: the three prisoners easily escape from their cell (we’re never shown how); they conveniently happen upon an Italian restaurant — with a friendly, beautiful, single owner — in the middle of nowhere; etc.

These leaps of logic are mildly amusing, and Robby Muller’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is a wonder to behold; but ultimately, these elements weren’t enough to keep my interest.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful black-and-white cinematography of the Louisiana bayou
  • The opening tracking shot, accompanied by Tom Waits singing an infectious blues ballad

Must See?
No, though it’s of interest for its cult status, and as one of this maverick indie filmmaker’s best-known early films.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


2 thoughts on “Down By Law (1986)

  1. Not a must — the reasons are well stated in the accurate overview here, and this may be among the rare times I won’t go back and watch the film again before adding a response. I didn’t think much of it the first time, and the overview reminded me of why. After seeing five of Jarmusch’s films, I’ve concluded he doesn’t have much to say as a filmmaker and would probably be better (perhaps rather good) at curating films in some capacity. (“Ouch!” — and I’m sorry.)

    Around the time Peary’s book was published, Jarmusch had made quite a splash with ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ (admittedly interesting and the one I would sit through again). He was so hyped that it’s understandable Peary would include ‘STP’ and ‘DBL’ in his book. No doubt many film fanatics will think Jarmusch’s post-‘STP’ work noteworthy enough to watch. Fine then; just remember it’s never a good sign when Benigni is in the cast.

  2. Agreed. I look forward to rewatching “Stranger Than Paradise” simply to see if I still find it as quirky and original as I did years ago; otherwise, I’m unimpressed with Jarmusch. I found his much-lauded recent film — “Broken Flowers”, with Bill Murray — to be especially disappointing, given the intriguing storyline and a cast of stellar supporting actors.

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