Up and down for the count

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - REVIEWS - TARA BRADY

DOWN BY LAW ★★★★★ Di­rected by Jim Jar­musch. Star­ring Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni Club, IFI, Dublin, 107 min

Here’s a sug­ges­tion. Jim Jar­musch’s Down by Law (1986) con­tains one of the most cap­ti­vat­ing prison se­quences in the his­tory of US cin­ema.

The three he­roes – played by sleek John Lurie, rough-edged Tom Waits and ir­re­press­ible Roberto Benigni – are play­ing cards in their cell. Catch­ing the word “scream”, Benigni, whose English is near-non-ex­is­tent, starts chant­ing the phrase “I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream.” Within seconds the en­tire prison pop­u­la­tion has joined in.

The scene is filmed in Jar­musch’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally mea­sured fash­ion. Robby Müller, the great Dutch cin­e­matog­ra­pher who learnt his trade with Wim Wen­ders, uses just two mono­chrome takes over three min­utes. There is no sense of the au­di­ence be­ing forced or ca­joled. The events ap­pear to be un­fold­ing mer­rily be­fore us.

There is, of course, plenty of con­trivance in Jar­musch’s early films, but his ge­nius was to make those lo-fi, post-New Wave fea­tures seem as en­joy­ably un­forced as a slow ex­hale after a sum­mer swim. Not a great deal hap­pens in Down by Law (though it’s pos­i­tively busy com­pared with his ear­lier Stranger Than Par­adise).

The film is about character, style and at­mos­phere. It’s prop­erly funny. It’s oc­ca­sion­ally sad. It fea­tures some of the clever­est cast­ing you could ever hope to en­counter.

Cher­ish this wel­come reis­sue from a con­tem­po­rary master.

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