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Down By Law

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The key statement made by Jim Jarmusch's 1984 masterpiece Stranger Than Paradise, one which defined and resonated through independent cinema for years afterward, was that American films don't have to be defined by propulsive stories, or even by dynamic characters. It was achievement enough simply to evoke a small corner of the world as specifically and flavorfully as possible, preferably one that the audience rarely gets a chance to see. In this respect, Jarmusch's superb 1986 follow-up Down By Law can be described as many things–a minimalist fairytale, a modern twist on '30s prison dramas, an existential comedy–but it's memorable first and foremost as a richly textured look at old New Orleans and the enchanted bayou surrounding it. With music and songs by stars John Lurie and Tom Waits, and stark black-and-white photography by the great Robby Müller (Paris, Texas), the film breaks off from the tourists on Bourbon Street and finds inspiration in the city's decaying underbelly–"a sad and beautiful world," as Waits neatly poeticizes it. Lurie and Waits play two ne'er-do-well lowlifes on parallel tracks; both are framed for separate crimes, and they're assigned a cell together at Orleans Parish Prison, where their similarities naturally lead them to resent each other. Lurie, a small-time pimp who knows nothing about women, sometimes marks time with fantasies about getting out of jail, while Waits, an unemployed DJ, will go several days without saying a word. Jarmusch adds a much-needed comic foil in Roberto Benigni, who reads English from a homemade phrasebook ("If looks could kill, I am dead now") and appreciates the poetry of Walt Whitman and "Bob" Frost. The three tunnel out of prison together, but in the film's most pointed visual joke, they escape to a place that looks dispiritingly familiar at first glimpse. An expansion on Stranger Than Paradise's narrow field of vision and deadpan spirit, Down By Law continues to champion the sort of down-and-out antiheroes that rarely occupy the fringes of other movies, much less take center stage. Jarmusch's schematic plotting and staunch aversion to sentiment could be mistaken as cool detachment, but the film reveals a quiet warmth toward its characters that's perfectly in tune with their reluctant camaraderie. In the 24 minutes of outtakes on this stellar new DVD, Jarmusch's restraint shows in his decision to cut a couple of scenes where Lurie and Waits' mutual affection is more overt, even brotherly. Rather than provide a running commentary, Jarmusch muses on various aspects of the production and themes in an audio-only "Thoughts "Reflections" feature, which is complemented by another, more irreverent Q&A session prompted by questions submitted by fans. Some of the better features are also the most playful, including a series of impromptu phone calls from Jarmusch to his three actors and a hilarious Lurie commentary track over a semi-coherent interview he did for French television at Cannes. ("Oh, no. I don't know who that guy is.") The unpretentious supplements are a refreshing change of pace, not to mention a rare admission that a film speaks well enough for itself.