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Down By Law

Criterion releases Jim Jarmusch's jailbird gem on Blu-ray.

Reviewed by Marc Savlov, Fri., July 20, 2012

DVD Watch

Down By Law

Criterion, $39.95 (Blu-ray)

Jim Jarmusch's third feature was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1986. It lost to Roland Joffé's The Mission. But since the director's Stranger than Paradise nailed the Golden Camera prize two years prior, Jarmusch – an Akron native, but born from the same New York City punk/no wave art-squall that gave us Steve Buscemi, Lizzie Borden, Richard Kern, and Susan Seidelman (peep Celine Danhier's fine doc Blank City for the full skinny) – was cool with that. Or not. In a lengthy audio chat (not a commentary, per se) ported over from Criterion's 2002 DVD release, he admits that while he ended up on the Cannes '85 jury, he has "a problem with juries and judging films as a group." That said, also on the jury that year was the Italian manic-pixie-nightmare boy Roberto Benigni. As Jarmusch tells it, they bonded over their shared nicotine fiendings, skipping out on various screenings they were supposed to be judging and finding a lingua franca in a mutual mangled French. Always with one eye peeled for jury head Robert Wise, who was quick to chastise the two "delinquents," Benigni was the missing piece of a story Jarmusch had been kicking around in his head for some time. Partly inspired, kinda sorta, by Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones, Down By Law follows the non-exploits of three soon-to-be prisoners in New Orleans: Tom Waits' DJ Zack, John Lurie's pimp Jack, and Benigni's Roberto, the (very) odd man in. Benigni's command of the English language remained non-existent; he worked phonetically from a collection of American idioms he carried around with him. But Roberto, the loopy annoyance that perpetually works his cell mates' penultimate nerves, is the one who eventually realizes the trio's escape into the surrounding bayou. This Blu-ray edition electrifies with its impossibly crisp digital reproduction of director of photography Robby Müller's camerawork. It's by turns breathtaking, claustrophobic, and wide-open. It's also, post-Katrina, a valuable historical record of certain parts of the Big Easy now lost forever to the engulfing kudzu and governmental laissez-foutre that malingers over the once-great city to this day. The opening tracking shot of a) a hearse, b) a graveyard, and c) the Lower Ninth Ward is ruefully riveting and, now, freighted with even more ominous portent than Jarmusch could have dreamed.

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