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flick pick | Down By Law 1986
Directed + written by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni

Language: English
Look for it at the video store under: drama, comedy

Watch it when you’re in the mood for something: artsy-fartsy, whimsical
The critic says: ½/ 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: /5

Plot synopsis On an unlucky night in New Orleans, deejay Zack, currently unemployed, makes the bad decision to take on a seemingly simple job from a shifty acquaintance, and finds himself framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Small-time pimp Jack finds himself in similarly unfortunate circumstances, when he arrives at a dingy motel to meet a new girl who’s been referred by someone who owes him, only to find that it’s a set-up, and the police are waiting there to arrest him. The two men find themselves sharing a cramped prison cell, and take an immediate dislike to one another. A petty battle of ludicrously macho posturing begins, as each feigns that they’re too cool to talk to the other. Until Jack and Zack find themselves joined by a third prisoner, whose arrival changes the cell dynamic. Roberto is a cheerful, loquacious Italian man who introduces himself as “Bob,” and speaks in broken English consisting primarily of awkwardly-employed idioms (he keeps a small tattered notebook of his favorites in his pocket, and frequently rifles through the list in search of the perfect cliché for a given moment). Bob valiantly tries to engage in conversation with his new cellmates, but to no avail – if Jack and Zack are too cool to acknowledge each other’s presence, they’re certainly not going to deign to speak to the odd little Italian guy, who’s such a bumbling idiot that he’s constantly getting their (very similar) names confused. Eventually, though, Bob’s exuberance wears them down, and something resembling a friendship is born. When Bob figures out a way to break the three of them out of prison, the oddball threesome embark on an adventure through the Lousiana bayou.

Review Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law rambles along like a gravelly-voiced Southern drawl, taking its good old time to get you from beginning of story to end, slowly sucking you in with its quirky, wry, low-key sense of humor. This is surely one of the least eventful escaped cons-on-the-run stories every created on film, more a character study than a plot-centric crime caper; there’s never any real tension regarding whether the characters are going to make it out of that swamp and away from the authorities or not. It’s the genius of Jim Jarmusch that a movie in which we see so little actually happening on-screen manages to be so damn entertaining to watch nonetheless. Both Tom Waits and John Lurie, musicians-turned-actors, do fine jobs as Zack and Jack respectively, but it’s Roberto Benigni who steals the show as the irrepressibly goofy, adorable Bob. Bob not only injects a good dose of the funny into the film, but also serves to teach the two loner Americans – both Zack and Jack begin as the prototypical trudge-through-life-alone stoic tough guys of classic film noir – a little lesson about what it means to connect with other human beings, to drop the cool façade and just be who you are. This isn’t your usual movie about prisoners on the lam. Down by Law feels effortlessly unique, a completely matter-of-fact, wholly un-self-conscious, oddball original. Unlike so many art-house/indie flicks, in which “weird” seems like the primary goal, Jarmusch’s film never feels like it’s trying to be different. It just is. Which is what makes it the quintessence of cool. —reviewed by Yee-Fan Sun

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