`Down By Law' opens New York Film Festival

``Down By Law'' is the latest movie from Jim Jarmusch, a young New York filmmaker with a promising talent and a liking for offbeat characters who live on the margins of society. That certainly describes the population of ``Down By Law,'' a foulmouthed and even unsavory bunch. Zack is an out-of-work disc jockey who flinches at the very thought of a respectable life. Jack is a small-time pimp with no future and not much of a present. Framed by their enemies for crimes they wouldn't have the imagination to dream up, they meet in a prison cell and dislike each other from the first minute.

Things get even worse when their new roommate shows up: an Italian tourist who accidentally killed a man with a billiard ball. ``I am killer,'' he says proudly, ``but not criminal.'' Still, he's the one who leads all three to an impossible jailbreak -- which lands them in the Louisiana swamps, lost and hungry and wishing they were back in their safe, dry cellblock.

If you're familiar with the career of filmmaker Jarmusch, all this may sound familiar. He made a strong impression a couple of years ago with a sly, wry comedy called ``Stranger Than Paradise,'' about three likable layabouts -- two New York men and a Hungarian woman -- who have various tiny adventures while wandering from Manhattan to Florida.

Although it's being touted as a ``radical departure'' from ``Stranger Than Paradise,'' the new ``Down By Law'' is virtually the same movie, just more abrasive and wearing a thin Southern disguise.

True, the story begins in New Orleans instead of SoHo this time. And the new film has fewer avant-garde touches: The events aren't shot in elegant ``single takes'' with no cutting from shot to shot, and scenes aren't separated from their neighbors by stretches of eloquently blank film.

Still, there's a remarkable likeness between ``Down By Law'' and its predecessor. Again the photography is in luminous black and white. Again the plot focuses on a pair of loafers and a new companion, from another country, who drops unexpectedly into their lives. Again they all go traveling, and again their journey ends in a mostly unresolved finale.

One thing that ``Down By Law'' couldn't borrow from ``Stranger Than Paradise,'' of course, was its utter originality. Hence the new picture starts with a small but telling strike against it: If you saw and admired Jarmusch's last movie, you'll feel a whopping sense of d'ej`a vu when you see his latest. There's a thin line between the virtue of consistency and the vice of self-imitation, and Jarmusch veers close to the latter.

This isn't to deny the achievements of ``Down By Law,'' which does a fine job of dodging conventional movie formulas, hewing to its own weird logic, and keeping its audience guessing from start to finish. The cinematography, by Robby Muller, is stunning even when the plot goes in circles. The music -- most of it provided by John Lurie and Tom Waits, who also star in the picture -- sets just the right moods.

And if you can get past their lackadaisical lives and gutter language, there's a lot to discover in the characters. A touching friendship grows between Jack and Zack, and eventually it extends to Roberto, who finds the happiest way out of his troubles -- in an Italian restaurant, of all things, smack in the middle of a bayou -- even though he's the farthest outside of all the outsiders. Played by Roberto Benigni, he's a good match for Lurie and Waits. The cast also includes Ellen Barkin, in a ferocious early scene that's more violent and emotionally scathing than anything that comes later.

``Down By Law'' is rated R, reflecting some nudity and sordid plot twists as well as much vulgar language. The movie opens the New York Film Festival tonight and starts its regular theatrical release tomorrow.

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