Movie Magazine International

Down By Law

USA - 1986

Movie Review By Heather Clisby

When a friend at work discovered I had not yet viewed Jarmusch's 1986 film, "Down By Law", she was aghast. The next day, the video was thrust in my face with no discussion. The black-and-white film is a pared-down prison piece kept in line by the lazy pace and subtle dialogue. Stylistically speaking, Jim Jarmusch is the antithesis of James Cameron, thank God.

The opening is a slow ride through the downtrodden neighborhoods of New Orleans while we listen to Tom Waits singing/grumbling/moaning his own rendition of 'Hernando's Hideaway.' It sets the mood perfectly, 'It's all gonna be low to the ground from here on out,' I thought.

I must admit a bias first off. I'm in love with Tom Waits. Yes, yes, I know but I'm a sucker for the gravelly, hard-traveled man with bad habits and an ear for poetry. I try to confine this urge to my music selections and film choices but occasionally it spills over into real life, much to the chagrin of my mother . . . .

Anyway, Tom is Zack, a down on his luck DJ who gets thrown out by his girlfriend, Laurette, played by the zesty Ellen Barkin and, boy, is she mad! John Lurie is Jack, a half-hearted pimp who sees a bright future in spite of himself. As one of his girls, Julie, muses from her naked position on the bed, "If you were a good pimp you woulda hit me by now." Jack just counts the money, ignoring her.

In the part of Bob, we get Roberto Benigni pre-pre-Oscar hoopla but he's still really happy and his English is still bad. Bob communicates primarily though cliches, metaphors and allegories and mostly, at high volume. He quotes Walt Whitman and Robert Frost in Italian and as the most genuine of the three inmates, he is also the only one who is truly guilty. While Jack & Zack brood, Bob smiles and hugs.

In one of the best scenes, Bob turns a quiet card game into a near prison riot just by repeating the children's phrase, "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream." You think the toughs are going to tell him to shut up but suddenly, this is the perfect mantra for the situation. These men are being denied their right to a tasty dairy treat and they demand justice.

A Jarmusch film may be too slow for some, especially those addicted to the over-stylized, smash-bang-boom, rapid-fire witticisms, watch-out-for-that-exploding-car type Hollywood minute meals we've been fed lately. Jarmusch is the European cafÈ experience as opposed to the drive-thru burrito place. Take some to time to absorb the gritty details, it's more than a meal.

© 1999 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 4/21/99

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