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The Criterion Collection presents
Down By Law (1986)

"If you was a good pimp, you woulda done hit me by now."
- Bobbie (Billie Neal)

Review By: Kevin Clemons  
Published: December 15, 2002

Stars: Roberto Benigni, Tom Waits, John Lurie
Other Stars: Nicoletta Braschi, Ellen Barkin, Billie Neal, Rockets Redglare, Vernel Bagneris, Timothea
Director: Jim Jarmusch

Manufacturer: Modern Videofilm
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexuality
Run Time: 01h:47m:37s
Release Date: October 22, 2002
UPC: 037429172025
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A B+A-B+ A

DVD Review

A staple of American independent cinema, director Jim Jarmusch has made his career by crafting eccentric and thought-provoking films that work marvelously despite not really being about anything in particular. Since his breakthrough debut, Stranger Than Paradise, Jarmusch's work has the sort of lackadaisical approach that allow the proceedings to feel effortless and whimsical, rather than planned. The result is a dream-like aura that so many of the director's best efforts share. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Down by Law, the sophomore follow up to the critically applauded Paradise that is as off-kilter as anything Jarmusch has ever done.

The story follows three very different men on paths that will eventually lead to the same small cell in a Louisiana prison. Zack (Waits) is a popular radio DJ whose life of hard-drinking has not only caused him problems with his girlfriend Laurette (Barkin), but also with the police who send him up for murder, for which he insists he is being framed. Jack (Lurie) is a small time pimp in New Orleans whose faults are exploited by his girls, who abuse him mentally. His life is further complicated by a competitor who sets him up to appear as though he had sex with a minor, thus sending Jack to jail. Finally there is Roberto (Benigni), an Italian tourist who is the only guilty one in the trio (he murdered someone in self defense using a billiard ball), though he is the meekest. Soon Roberto inadvertently leads the others in starting a prison riot that allows the trio to flee into the bayou, a place that makes prison seem down right heartwarming.

It is after the prison break that Down by Law becomes a masterpiece of American independent cinema. In his script, Jarmusch splendidly crafts dialogue and situations between his trio of escapees so that, even on the run, they still fight and argue just as if they were trapped inside the confines of a small prison cell. The characters of Jack and Zack are at odds with each other, yet they find a common bond in going against Roberto, who represents everything that they so despise in life. Another wonderful factor is that Jarmusch realizes that there does not need to be any large conflicts or plot twists in order to propel a story. Instead, he understands that it is the characters, not their actions, from which a story grows.

Jarmusch and cinematographer Robby Muller create a representation of the bayou that looks unlike anything else seen on film. The elegant compositions are so stunningly realized in near perfect black & white imagery that at times the light coming into the swamps seems heavenly. Jarmusch keeps the pace slow, which strangely works in the movie's favor. As we follow these three characters, Jarmusch uses lengthy shots that create a prolonged sense of dread and gloom, which help in terms of both emotion and humor.

As the trio, Waits, Lurie, and Benigni do meticulous work that has yet to be rivaled in their careers. Waits and Lurie bring color and life to their parts of men worn down. Waits in particular has the ability to use his dry and dark persona perfectly to suit his character in any situation. Benigni burst onto the American scene in this film, and I feel his work here bests that of his award-winning performance in Life is Beautiful.

Down by Law is likely to polarize its audiences which, in my experience, is a good sign of a truly enjoyable motion picture.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that was supervised by Jarmusch, this looks absolutely terrific. Sharpness and detail are the real stars of the image, providing the transfer a very film-like look. I noticed very little grain evident in the black levels and edge enhancement and pixelation are never a problem. This is a wonderful transfer that showcases the excellent black & white cinematography by Robby Muller.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Digital Mono track is simply a dialogue mix, which is crisp, clear and easy to understand. Simple and to the point, huh?

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
16 Deleted Scenes
Isolated Music Score with remote access
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Press conference with Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi
  2. Thoughts and Reflections by Jim Jarmusch
  3. Interview with John Lurie
  4. Interview with Robby Muller
  5. 1:Jim Jarmusch calls Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, and John Lurie
    2: Tom Waits music video
    3: Outtakes
    4: Two still galeries
Extras Review: Criterion has seen fit to provide Down by Law with a wealth of extra material for this new two-disc set, and I can honestly say that the inclusion of every extra feature was worthwhile.

Disc One:
Two extra features are showcased on the first disc. One is a feature titled, Thoughts and Reflections by Jim Jarmusch, a series of twenty-nine audio bits of the filmmaker discussing certain aspects of the film. Most interesting is to hear Jarmusch discuss both the look as well as the casting process. His stories about Benigni are the highlight of these stories, as it is evident that the exuberance that Benigni shows on screen continues when the cameras are not rolling. The theatrical trailer is presented in Dolby Mono and anamorphic widescreen.

Disc Two:
The major extra feature here is the complete press conference from the 1986 Cannes Film Festival with participants Jarmusch, Lurie, Benigni, and Nicoletta Braschi. This forty-five-minute press conference shows signs of age; the quality is rough, but the bulk of the material is informative. Jarmusch does the lion's share of the speaking, on subjects from the tone to his take on the making of the film as his anticipated follow up to Stranger Than Paradise. In the same vein is an interview with John Lurie from 1986 (with commentary by Lurie from 2002). It is hysterical to hear Lurie comment on himself, as funny as anything else on the disc, including the film.

A video interview with cinematographer Robby Muller rounds out the promotional aspects of the disc. Muller discusses the style used for the film as well as numerous technical specs of the camera and film stock. It is dry, but informative for those studying film.

Sixteen deleted scenes are featured in average quality and total nearly half an hour in running length. There are a few sequences here that are worthy of inclusion in the finished product, including an alternate ending that is thankfully on par with the existing finale. The only thing missing is audio commentary by Jarmusch. A series of outtakes are also included and are worth a look.

It's All Right With Me is a music video by Tom Waits, directed by Jarmusch, which is accompanied by an audio clip featuring the director discussing the making of the video. The song and video are both very good. A Q and A with Jim Jarmusch features nearly twenty question submitted via Criterion by fans. While some deal with the film, many do not. These are fun and are a welcome inclusion for the disc. Jim Jarmusch Calls Waits, Lurie, and Benigni is simply an audio collection of phone calls made by Jarmusch to his three stars in the summer of 2002. These pieces are fun, but they add very little to what we already know.

A photo gallery of test shots, as well as a still gallery round out the extra features for Down by Law.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

The Criterion Collection has once again made an already excellent film better by virtue of a stunning two-disc set. Down by Law is a landmark in both the career of Jim Jarmusch as well as independent cinema. It deserves to find its way into your collection.

 


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