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Down by Law

How Jim Jarmusch’s odd fable, now on Blu-ray, sparked a lifelong affair with indie film

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LOW BUDGET, HIGH ART This hauntingly beautiful black-and-white fable is one of the earliest examples of a well-executed low-budget film
Island Pictures/Everett Collection

Three years before Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape ushered in a new era in personal, low-budget filmmaking, Jim Jarmusch directed Down by Law (1986, R, 1 hr., 47 mins.). I was in high school at the time, just starting to fall in love with movies. And Jarmusch’s weird black-and-white fable — along with its deadpan predecessor, 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise — was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was strange, hip, and funny (although way too cool to admit it was trying to be a comedy). It was also my first brush with independent cinema. If you’ve never seen Down by Law, there’s no better time than the present to give it a spin thanks to a new Criterion Blu-ray that makes Robby Müller’s inky noir cinematography seem more haunting and beautiful than ever. The plot of the film is almost beside the point, but here it is anyway: A down-on-his-luck radio DJ (Tom Waits) and a small-time pimp (John Lurie) are each set up and thrown in a Louisiana jail. The cellmates bicker and brawl until a third prisoner is brought in — an infectiously cheerful Italian (Roberto Benigni) spouting random pidgin-English phrases like ”I screama, you screama, we all screama for ice creama.” The three manage to escape and wind up slogging through swamp country. That’s pretty much it. Thankfully, Jarmusch is more interested in the journey than the destination. Waits and Lurie, who also provide the film’s jazzy soundtrack, are two of the heppest cats on the planet, but it’s Benigni — years before his shtick got old — who gives this early indie its kick. The disc’s EXTRAS are solid, but not new. They include outtakes and interviews with the cast and crew. A

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