Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni, Ellen Barkin, Nicoletta Braschi
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 107
Date: 01/05/1986

Down by Law (1986)

4 Stars (out of 4)

It's a Sad and Beautiful World

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

"It's a sad and beautiful world," says Roberto, in one of the funniest and most potent of all movie lines. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch followed up his 1984 masterpiece Stranger than Paradise with this odd, funny, strangely mesmerizing three-part comedy. Some have accused Jarmusch of being an episodic filmmaker, but this one feels all of a piece.

Three hapless New Yorker dwellers who get arrested for various insignificant reasons and wind up sharing a prison cell. Tom Waits plays Zack, a washed-up DJ, John Lurie plays Jack, a pimp, and Roberto Benigni is a tourist. Just before they drive each other crazy -- Benigni in particular, with his half-learned English phrases -- they manage to escape through the damp Louisiana marshes. Ellen Barkin co-stars as Zack's harping girlfriend.

Robby Muller's crisp black-and-white cinematography, ranging from its grubby prison walls to the reflections on the swamp water, looks amazing on this Criterion Collection release. Jarmusch has provided a package of unusual extras: he actually answers questions that fans submitted to the Criterion website and shares recently recorded phone conversations with his three stars.

In 2012, Criterion released a Blu-ray edition. In addition to the aforementioned DVD extras, it comes with a new digital transfer, supervised by Jarmusch, and an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. There are interviews with Jarmusch and Muller from 2002, footage from the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, outtakes, a music video for Tom Waits's cover of Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me," directed by Jarmusch, production Polaroids and location stills, a trailer, an isolated music track, and an optional French dub track, featuring Benigni's voice. Critic Luc Sante provides the liner notes essay.
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