It's a conglomeration of ideas. A mish-mash of genres topped with an art house comedic charm that makes the entire movie feel completely original, when in essence we're dealing with yet another movie about prison life and escaping from it.
I'd never seen Jim Jarmusch's 'Down by Law' until now. As I watched its trio of unlucky souls – an unemployed disc jockey (Tom Waits), a pimp (John Lurie), and a happy-go-lucky Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni) – KILL time in their prison cell playing cards and etching tally marks on the wall, counting down the days of incarceration, I thought, finally, a prison movie that isn't completely focused on the nonsense of escaping. Then they escaped.
Truthfully I felt a little let down when they escaped prison simply because watching the way they passed their time in prison was a whole lot of fun. One of the most charming cinematic scenes I've ever witnessed is when Roberto jumps up and starts singing, "You scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream!" Then his friends join in. Then the entire prison. There a genuine quality at work here. Jarmusch lingers on scenes as if he's simply waiting to see what transpires. It's this humanistic quality that makes the movie work, yes, even after they escape.
Leave it to Jarmusch to take something as clichéd as a prison escape and make it into something completely different. We aren't regaled with intricate 'Ocean's 11' type plans, instead the escape happens and then the trio find themselves walking through the dank Louisiana swamp trying to find civilization having the same conversations they had in the joint.
None of them are bad guys, really. Jack (the pimp) is the only real criminal of the gang, but he's such a nice pimp he doesn't even hit his girls. Zack (the unemployed disc jockey) was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when he got arrested. Roberto, is well, Roberto. Because these three guys are a likable bunch, the movie works as a delicate comedy.
'Down by Law' doesn't attain the near-perfection of Jarmusch's 'Stranger than Paradise,' (hopefully we get the Criterion Blu-ray release of this soon) but it's a worthy addition to the Jarmusch art house library. A movie that is content with analyzing the seemingly mundane tasks of imprisonment. He's able to conjure belly-laughing comedy out of a story that seems to be about nothing in particular. Much of the belly laughing is due in part to Benigni. He's just as lovable as he is in 'Life is Beautiful.' He's full of energy, brimming with infinite optimism, even when he finds himself behind bars.
Adding to its art house feel, Jarmusch decided to go the black and white route, which features some stunning photography from Robby Müller. Müller gives Louisiana a completely different look than what we're used to seeing. A stark, unwavering, shadow-filled world of colorless images. It's an interesting choice to shoot a subtle comedy like this in black and white, but in the end it works. It plays into the noir essence of the movie. After all, Jarmusch described the movie as a "neo-Beat noir comedy."
The movie does seem to drag on just a little long as long drawn-out scenes become even longer and more drawn-out since this is an art house film and because it is the camera must loiter on the scene around a minute or two longer than is comfortable. Even so, there is a lot of clever comedy contained in these rather simple scenes. It's definitely a treasure of the Jarmusch catalogue.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a Criterion release. It's packaged in the standard, slightly oversized, clear Criterion keepcase. The spine number for the collection is #166. The back of the case indicates it's a Region A only release. Inside isn't the normal booklet that comes with Criterion releases. Instead we get a four page fold-out which contains an essay called "Chemistry Set" by author Luc Sante, cast and crew lists, and a note about the transfer.
Criterion's treatment of 'Down by Law' looks magnificent in 1080p. There are a few missteps that holds it back from complete perfection, but for the most part this is one of the best looking releases they've every released on Blu-ray.
The entire transfer was given the OK by Jim Jarmusch who supervised it being made. What they've created is a pristine looking from 1986 which really is no easy feat. The black and white photography comes to life here. I couldn't believe the detail in this movie. Take a look at the cement and brick walls of New Orleans. The rough, rock-like texture is appears tangible on screen. Like you could reach out and touch it any time you wanted. Shadows are beautifully rendered, bringing back memories of the recently restored 'Twilight Zone' seasons. Contrast is exquisite. Detail on faces, like Tom Waits' stubble, look remarkably real and lifelike.
For the most part the movie has been cleaned of grime and dirt. There is nary a fleck or speck that pops up during the entire runtime. There are a couple instances during the nighttime swamp scenes where white blips pop up for a few seconds, but they quickly subside as the next scene comes about. There is also some noticeable film judder when Jack is talking to one of his girls, but it doesn't last for very long. On the whole this is a demo-quality release. The black and white photography shines. Fans will be very happy.
We're provided with the original LPCM 1.0 mono track here. That's okay though since its quite capable of delivering everything that it is asked to do during the movie's runtime and it's the way the movie was meant to be heard in the first place.
Dialogue is always clear and intelligible. Even Benigni's thick accent is easy to discern. With every sound coming from one channel you'd think that dialogue would get buried under the weight of the rest of the soundtrack, but it doesn't. There are a few hushed lines that were initially hard to hear though.
I was impressed with the range that the sound mix showed. Even though it was only one channel, when you hear the search dogs barking in the distance it almost sounds like it's coming through the surround channels. Brilliant mixing was used to make those sounds as realistic as possible with the limitations of a mono track. I didn't notice any hissing or crackling for the entire movie. The audio does just as good a job as the video.
All of these features were previously used on the 2002 Criterion DVD release.
'Down by Law' is an extremely likable art house film, one that has much more comedic value than I would've previously thought. Roberto Benigni is as delightful as he's always been. I like the other two men, but Benigni really adds that colorful life-loving character that was needed to balance out the pessimism of Waits and Lurie. The black and white cinematography looks absolutely stunning here and the original mono track sounds great. Criterion fans will be pleased. Jarmusch fans should be ecstatic. 'Down by Law' is yet another recommended Criterion title.