Down By Law Review
Down By Law is well filmed, beautifully photographed, has some quality actors and is very funny at times, yet you’d be hard pushed to enjoy the film in its entirety. Fans of Jarmusch will no doubt love it (although fans will have already seen it ten times) whereas relative newcomers to the portfolio of the independent filmmaker’s work will need more examples before making judgment. Although familiar with Jarmusch, I have to admit that this was my first viewing of Down By Law, and my initial experience was one very similar to that of watching a Coen Brothers film – it’s more enjoyable in hindsight and on repeated viewings.
Filmed in gorgeous black and white by veteran indie cinematographer Robby Müller (of Paris, Texas and Dancer In The Dark fame), Down By Law tells the story (or loose story) of three different individuals who meet by chance in a prison cell. There’s Jack(John Lurie) a small time pimp arrested in a set up involving a nine year old girl; There’s Zack (Tom Waits), an out-of-work disc jockey framed for murdering a random body that is locked in the boot of the car he was driving for a job; and there’s Roberto (Roberto Benigni) an Italian tourist with flawed English who accidentally killed a man in a bar-room brawl. Together in the cell, the three do not appreciate each other’s company, but soon enough they escape (in a rather ambiguous way) and must attempt to reach safety after trekking through the Louisiana swamps.
At one hundred and two minutes the film is overlong, and many stretches are too drawn out and thus the pace is lost. There’s also too much of a ‘vignette’ style of narrative, with too many fade-outs. Yet even with these flaws, it’s hard not to find something likeable about Down By Law. The photography as mentioned before utilises superbly the use of natural locations and black and white tones, and the direction is assured and yet minimalist. The highlight however, is Roberto Benigni, who proves that even early on in his career he has a gift for comedy. He at least deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance in Down By Law.
Down By Law will either have you nodding off after ten minutes or subtly fascinated throughout, and whatever camp you belong to really does depend on the individual - You are either impressed by things such as long takes, stunning visuals and black and white photography or you are not. I am.
The last Second Sight disc I reviewed - Jubilee, had a mediocre fullframe picture which contained many speckles and dirt marks. In comparison, Down By Law has a stunning anamorphic transfer in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, which is flawless and truly complements the beautiful black and white photography. Second Sight should receive praise for both the transfer and the fact that the DVD is not even released on Region 1 yet.
Presented in mono, the sound suffers at times due to some inaudible dialogue that is probably more the fault of the small budget of the film as opposed to the distributor. Having said that, the modern jazz soundtrack and the background noises are still crisp and clear given the limited one track space.
Unfortunately, this is one of those disks whereby no extras are present. When this occurs on a DVD you appreciate the interactive menus and scene access.
Down By Law won’t please everybody and is certainly not going to impress the recent aficionados of ‘dumbing down cinema’. At the very least, it will lose many so-called film fans who won’t watch new films in black and white. However, it is certainly worth a look, if only to see an example of a classic independent director’s work or to see one of the best performances by the ‘Clown Prince Of Comedy’ Roberto Benigni.