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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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Jack, Zack, and Bob successfully escape from jail, manage to shake the persuing guards and dogs and were able to survive the wilderness and Bob has even found a permanant place to stay with another Italian immigrant who immediately falls for him, but it is extremely unlikely that the three friends will ever see each other again, as the film ends with Jack and Zack literally going their own seperate ways.
  • 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.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: This movie contains at least 45 uses of the f-word.
  • 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: Jack is thrown in prison after a fellow pimp tricks him into trying to recruit a minor as part of a police sting, while Zack is arrested after he is asked to drive a car across town that, unbeknownst to him, has a dead body in the trunk.
  • 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.
  • Irony: After losing the prison guards they find a cabin to stay at for the night and are relieved to not have to spend another night's rest in jail... only to find out that the cabin's bunkbeds have the same layout as their former prison cell.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • As likeable as Bob is, he was totally guilty of the crime that landed him in prison, but he escapes and finishes the film cohabiting with a beautiful woman.
    • The rival gang member who set up Jack never receives any on-screen comeuppance.
  • Mistaken for Pedophile: Jack gets a tip about a 19-year-old potential new prostitute. However, when he arrives at the hotel room where she is staying and begins his pitch for why she should work for him, the police burst in and arrest him, and as the lights are turned on, the girl is revealed to be no more than 14 or 15.
  • 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; he is asked to drive a Jaguar from one part of town to another, but the police, acting on a tip, pull him over and discover a bodynote  in the trunk (which Zack knew nothing about).
  • Two Roads Before You: Subverted; when Jack and Zack reach the fork in the road in the film's final scene, they have no interest in which road leads where, only in taking different roads to each other.
  • What Are You in For?: Once Roberto is put in the cell with Jack and Zack, the conversation inevitably turns to why they are in prison. Jack and Zack only tell Roberto that they were framed for crimes they didn't commit, while he tells them that he accidentally killed a man who attacked him for cheating while gambling.
  • You All Meet in a Cell: Or at least the three leads do.