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'Down by Law'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 03, 1986

 


Director:
Jim Jarmusch
Cast:
John Lurie;
Tom Waits;
Roberto Benigni;
Ellen Barkin
R
Under 17 restricted


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TOM WAITS, the closest to black a white man can get, rasps his bourbon-soaked blues. The poet with perpetual laryngitis sings till it hurts from a New Orleans curb. The mood is set for the cellblock comedy, "Down By Law."

Jim Jarmusch writes and directs this unconventional, Cajun-country fairytale with its new-Beat lyricism and seminal style. It's like no movie you've ever seen, not even "Stranger Than Paradise," the feature that first brought Jarmusch to the banks of the mainstream. It's a close cousin, with its quixotic cast and off-center dialogue, though more care is evident in the staging of this neo-noir fable.

The look is Peter Gunn Meets Piet Mondrian -- a taut, constructivist film, photographed to perfection by Dutchman Robby Muller, working in black and white for the first time in 20 years. His tracking shots strain your neck for a dizzying look up at the balustrades. The imagery repeats, reverses and reiterates itself. The Louisiana landscapes fly by like wrought-iron nightmares.

Within this strict framework, the droll dialogue sounds almost like comics doing inspired improv. The heroes are like the Three Stooges, but they discuss poetry.

Singer Waits has his first major movie role as dazed deejay Zack, framed for murder and imprisoned uncomfortably with cellmate Jack, a highblown pimp played by John Lurie. Jack has also been framed, for child molestation by a dissatisfied john. Zack is marking time on the wall, which is about one-fourth covered with chalk lines when they are joined by Italian tourist Roberto -- or Bob, as he prefers to be called. Italian comic Roberto Benigni is pure genius in this hilarious role. Like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Pierre Richard, he is the little clown who could.

Of the trio, the blithely impudent Bob is the only one who actually committed a crime -- he murdered in self defense, with a billiard ball. An avid student of English, he writes down American figures of speech and repeats them in his exaggerated pidgin. "You scream. I scream. We all scream for ice cream," he reads from his traveler's notepad. Soon the prisoners are rioting, rattling their chains and chanting: "You scream| I scream| We ALL scream for ice cream|"

Waits walks on the wild side. His glib drive-time chatter is punctuated by fits of despair, a lovable loser with a mane of messy hair and pointy-toed shoes. Lurie, the big-talking small-timer, is full of bravado as the caged hood with a heart. Neither believes in fairytales.

Thanks to Bob's simple beliefs in movie magic, cliches come true and the jailbirds escape into the bayous -- where the trees prove as confining as bars. Beautifully visualized, symbolically realized, they're like little boys lost in a Grimm Brothers forest.

There's so much to see and imagine, so many twists left to ponder in such a complicated and multi-layered tale -- whether, for instance, the ending is foretold in an early quote from Frost's "The Road Not Taken." Are the characters as carefully framed by the moviemakers as they are by the story villains? The temptation -- and some of the fun -- is to analyze "Down By Law" to death, to chew on it. Hyper-intellectualizing aside, it's pure pleasure for comedy connoisseurs. DOWN BY LAW (R) -- At the West End Circle.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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