One thing that I have always liked about Jim Jarmusch is that a lot of times he seems to use people whom you've either never heard of, or wouldn't expect to see acting in a film. His 1986 film "Down by Law" is no exception. The film tells the story of three men, Zack (Waits), Jack (Lurie) and Roberto (Benigni) who meet when they are put in the same jail cell at a New Orleans prison. All three men are different in terms of background; Zack is a serially employed radio DJ who is kicked out of the house by his girlfriend, only to run into a shady acquaintance that offers him $1,000 to drive a hot Jaguar to an undisclosed location in the city. Along the way he is stopped by the police and unfortunately, a body is found in the trunk of the Jag, which spells bad news for Zack and a quick trip to prison. Jack is a pimp who is set up by an associate of his; when he goes to meet a prospective "worker" in a hotel room, the police bust in, the lights go on and it turns out the woman is actually a young girl. Roberto's background is a little shadier, though murder factors into it. Roberto's command of the English language is comical and his naiveté and good mood are infectious, but the other two come to near blows either with each other or Roberto on more than one occasion, particularly after they manage to escape from prison, when they are forced to rely on one another to survive the swamps of Louisiana so they can escape prison, and one another, for good.
"Down by Law" is shot in wonderful black and white, which gives the film both a starkness and bare-bones feel. The music is also fantastic, with the instrumentals being performed by John Lurie and the songs by Tom Waits. Thirteen years before winning Best Actor for "Life is Beautiful", Beningi gives a great performance in this film; his charm and humor were incredibly apparent in this, his first American film. Tom Waits, a personal favorite of mine, most musically but also for his various movie roles, is a natural actor and did a great job in this film. John Lurie, whom I don't remember from other Jarmusch films I've seen, but apparently was in them gave a decent performance, though at times it was fairly wooden. I suspect that there was a good amount of improvisation throughout "Down by Law", but that didn't help some of its pacing problems. Though the photography of the film was wonderful, it couldn't help divert from the fact that there were times when the film really dragged for me, like Jarmusch had left the camera on and the principals were just kind of doing their thing, though not in a compelling manner.
Overall, however, I did enjoy "Down by Law" and it is a must-see for any Jarmusch fan. I would also recommend it for those who enjoyed Beningi's more recent performances, because he really seemed to have a lot of fun with this film, as did I, for the most part. 6/10 --Shelly
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