Down By Law. 1986. dir. Jim Jarmusch
You may have seen inspiring films of prison escape like The Shawshank Redemption. Well, this movie isn’t like that…
Zack (Tom Waits) is a recently-fired DJ who gets set-up to deliver a Jaguar from one part of town to another. What he doesn’t know is that the trunk holds illegal contents… Jack (John Lurie) is a pimp who visits a hotel to check up on a possible new recruit. When he gets there, he is framed for a crime he didn’t commit… Bob (Roberto Benigni) is an Italian tourist who accidentally kills a man by throwing an eight ball to his head. The common strand among the three is that they end up in the same New Orleans jail cell.
All the actors of fit perfectly for the film. Roberto Benigni does an excellent job portraying Roberto Benigni: a hyper, optimistic short guy who speaks poor English. His acting comes natural to him, and he becomes the beating heart of this black and white film. Tom Waits suits his role as the Louis Armstrong-voiced DJ who probably listened to too many Tom Waits records. He is a lovable loser, whose stumbling walk makes him appear shorter than his six foot frame. His acting style is directly influenced by his music: drunken, disheveled, and charming. His 1985 album Rain Dogs provides some of the music for the film (maybe Jarmusch thought he would have a lower overhead by paying one of the actors for music credits, too). John Lurie also comes from a music background (he is the leader of the New York “fake jazz” band, the Lounge Lizards, as well as composer for the scores of many Jarmusch films). Lurie is pure downtown New York hipster: he gives off a menacing aura, his mouth looks like he plays the alto sax way too much, and he probably does heroin. At least two of those assessments are true, which makes his onscreen presence that much more commanding. Although one may assume he was cast for the role for the same reason Waits was, no one else could have done the role quite as well.
Down By Law is a wonderful prison escape film. The majority of the first half focuses on Jack and Zack, leading one to believe that the film is headed for a depressing climax. However, Bob brings his natural, Italian sunshine onto the screen and brings all of the characters redemption. Maybe it doesn't reach those emotional highs like Shawshank, but then again, I haven't even seen Shawshank so I wouldn't be able to compare.