Down By Law review: character, style and atmosphere from a contemporary master

Down by Law
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Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cert: Club
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni
Running Time: 1 hr 47 mins

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-nonexistent, 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.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic