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Film / Down by Law

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"It is a sad and beautiful world."
Roberto, AKA Bob

Down by Law is a 1986 independent film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. It stars John Lurie, pre-Oscar Roberto Benigni and musician Tom Waits.

Jack (Lurie), a pimp, and Zack (Waits), a disc jockey, are both imprisoned in Louisiana for crimes they didn't commit. Before long they're joined by Italian immigrant Roberto (Benigni), who's in for manslaughter which he did commit.

Roberto soon comes up with a plan that allows them to escape prison together; they then must navigate the swamps and forests of Louisiana without being recaptured.

Well known for its beautiful cinematography by Jarmusch associate Robby Muller.


This Movie Contains Examples of:

  • At the Crossroads: The last shot of the film has Zack and Jack coming across a fork in the road. The Two Roads Before You bit is actually subverted, though, because both are indifferent towards which path they'll take, as long as the other doesn't come with them. The movie even references "The Road Not Taken" at one point.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Roberto, the friendliest man in the trio, is the only one jailed for a real crime - murder by cue-ball.
  • Brick Joke: Earlier, when discussing where they will go now that they've escaped, Bob says that he wants to go to Texas due to fond memories of seeing it in film. Jack immediately shoots him down, saying that Texas would be much harsher on fugitive criminals. The place where Bob finds Nicolette, and Jack and Zack start their next chapters, is right near the border of Texas.
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  • Deep South: The film was shot in and takes place in Louisiana and New Orleans and makes use of the swampy scenery.
  • Defenestrate and Berate: Laurette does this to her boyfriend Zack, for reasons that aren't entirely clear.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The whole film is shot in black and white.
  • Eloquent in My Native Tongue: Roberto sounds like a gibbering fool in English, but in Italian, he can recite poetry.
  • Frame-Up: As noted above.
  • Gratuitous Italian: Roberto is Italian and doesn't known much English besides the phrases he's written down in his notebook.
  • Great Escape: Played with. The film's focus is not on the escape itself (in fact the details are never revealed), but on the characters involved.
  • Karma Houdini: As likeable as Bob is, he's an example of this- he was totally guilty of the crime that landed him in prison, but he escapes and finishes the film cohabiting with a beautiful woman.
  • Mistaken for Pedophile: What ultimately gets Jack arrested.
  • Modesty Bedsheet: Averted and played straight in the first few scenes with Zack and the prostitute.
  • Noodle Incident: Whatever method the trio uses to escape from the prison.
  • Nice Mean And In Between: The three main characters. Friendly, naive Roberto is the Nice, surly Jack is the Mean, and oddball Zach is the In-Between.
  • Prison Riot: Through a chant of "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!", Roberto manages to provoke a general outburst that comes very close to dissolving into an example of this.
  • Punk in the Trunk: The reason for Zack's imprisonment.
  • Tom Waits: Not only does the film star the man, it features two songs from his '85 album Rain Dogs: "Jockey Full Of Bourbon" and "Tango Till They're Sore".
  • Two Roads Before You: Subverted; see At the Crossroads above.
  • What Are You in For?: The three prisoners go through this with each other.
  • You All Meet in a Cell: Or at least the three leads do.