5 October 2014

Jarmusch Collection Blu-ray Review - Down By Law (1986)

Drama, Comedy
Soda Pictures
BD Release Date:
6th October 2014 (UK)
Rating: 18
Jim Jarmusch
Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni
Buy:Jim Jarmusch Box Set [Blu-ray]

Down by Law was Jim Jarmusch’s third film, his best and most popular. It was also recently re-released in the UK cinemas. Jarmusch’s most ambitious film to date, it marked the beginning of a long collaboration with the cinematographer Robby Müller. It’s an absurdist noir black comedy and remains the only film Jarmusch has used “American money” in it’s funding.

The story concerns three different men who are unknown to each other until they are thrown into jail together in New Orleans. Zack (Tom Waits) is a disk jockey, Jack (John Lurie) is a smalltime pimp, and both are innocent of the crimes they are imprisoned for. Their cellmate is Bob (Roberto Benigni), an Italian tourist who is imprisoned for manslaughter. They eventually hatch a plan to escape and end up in the swamps of the New Orleans Bayou.

Tom Waits, who was almost always a bit player, gets a co-lead here and you really get to see how good actor he can be. John Lurie is great as well and it’s a shame he hasn’t done much acting work since the 80s except some work on the TV show OZ, although this is partly down to illness. Benigni, however, steals the film: he gets all the biggest laughs, his character constantly misunderstands his cellmates to hilarious effect.

Robby Müller, one of the world’s best directors of photography from the 1970s to the early 2000s, shot Down By Law. He hasn’t shot a film in over 10 years, but his influence it still felt around the world. Down by Law contains some of Müller’s best work, the scenes in the Bayou are absolutely beautiful. The nearest comparison would be some of the scenes in Tarkovsky’s first film Ivan’s Childhood. He would end up working with Jarmusch on all his features up to and including Ghost Dog, with the exception of Night on Earth.

Almost 30 years after its release, Down By Law remains a high water mark of Independent cinema, and also of Jim Jarmusch’s career. It’s a surreal farcical trip and even on second and third viewings it still works its strange charm on you. It’s also full of great performances and a great soundtrack supplied by Tom Waits and John Lurie.

The film’s transfer onto Blu-Ray, from what I gather, comes from the same masters as the Criterion Blu-Ray. It looks the best I’ve ever seen, it’s crystal clear throughout but regains the right amount of film grain. The disc features a series of phone calls Jarmusch made to the cast for the original Criterion DVD which are funny and insightful regarding the film and their relationship.

Ian Schultz

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