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Down by Law: The Criterion Collection

Released two years after the attention-getting Stranger Than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law (1986) is the work of a filmmaker who's assured, yet still finding his way. The pacing is languorous to the point of annoyance at times, but the imagery is beautiful, and the director's gift for offbeat characters and dialogue is evident. Although Jarmusch really didn't hit his stride until 1989's Mystery Train, the patient viewer will find a lot to love in this small, stark, constructivist exploration of three of cinema's most intriguing losers. Gravel-voiced troubadour Tom Waits plays Zack, a slacker deejay who's framed for murder. Tossed into prison, he shares a cell with Jack (John Lurie), a pimp who was also framed — he went down for child molestation, set up by a dissatisfied john — and Roberto (Roberto Benigni, back before he got precious and annoying), an Italian tourist who prefers to be called "Bob." The movie lazily documents the three as they do their time together, and then escape from prison. The many quirky charms of Down By Law are difficult to describe, often encapsulated by Jarmusch's oddball hipster sensibilities and the sort of low-key comedy that's as hilarious as it absurd. Working without much of a plot, Down by Law is made from small such moments; most of the story focuses on the three cellmates killing time, Samuel Beckett-like, and the charm comes almost entirely from the dialogue. Criterion's two-disc DVD release of Down by Law is, as usual, stunning. The new anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) was supervised by Jarmusch and is phenomenal. This is a gorgeous movie, and the rich, textural work by cinematographer Robby Müller has never looked better than it does here. The monaural audio is very clean, with both the dialogue and the music (songs by Waits, score by Lurie) coming through clear and distinct. Extras on the two-disc set include the featurette "Thoughts and Reflections by Jim Jarmusch," an interview with Robby Müller, a section on the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, 24 minutes of outtakes, a music video of Waits singing Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me," an audio-only Q&A with Jarmusch, a series of phone calls between Jarmusch and his cast, an isolated music track, Polaroid test shots, production stills, and the original theatrical trailer. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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