Down by Law [1986]

After creating one of the breakthrough movies of the American independent cinema, Stranger than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch stayed right in the same minimalist, oddball, black-and-white groove. Down by Law takes place in Louisiana, where two losers (musicians Tom Waits and John Lurie) find themselves stuck in a jail cell together. One day they are joined by a boisterous Italian (Roberto Benigni), and the chemistry changes--suddenly an escape attempt is on the horizon. Conventional drama is not Jarmusch's intention; one of the emotional high points of this movie is the three guys marching around their prison cell shouting, "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!" Yet the deadpan style creates its own humorous mood, underscored by melancholy (also underscored by the music of Lurie and the gravel-voiced songs of Waits). This was the first American film for Roberto Benigni, the Italian comedian (Life Is Beautiful), and he lights it up with his effervescent clowning. Jarmusch has said that Down by Law forms a loose trilogy with Stranger than Paradise and the subsequent Mystery Train, a triptych of disaffected, drifting life in the United States. Few filmmakers have ever surveyed ennui so entertainingly. --Robert Horton

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