Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. USA/West Germany, 1986. Black Snake, Grokenberger Film Produktion, Island Pictures. Screenplay by Jim Jarmusch. Cinematography by Robby Muller. Produced by Alan Kleinberg. Music by John Lurie. Production Design by Janet Densmore. Costume Design by Carol Wood. Film Editing by Melody London. Cannes Film Festival 1986.
John Lurie plays a New Orleans pimp who is set up by a rival and thrown in jail for something he didn’t do. Tom Waits is an unemployed disc jockey who is pulled aside for drunk driving and his car is found to possess a dead body that he didn’t put there. The two of them share a jail cell with bubbly, exuberant Roberto Benigni, who claims to be deservedly incarcerated for having killed a man. The three arrange a jailbreak, eventually wandering Louisiana swamps before the adventure gets wilder and they each move towards their individual destinies. This brilliant, early Jim Jarmusch masterpiece features so many of the qualities that have deservedly made him such a cult favourite: his pace is refreshingly slow and methodical, his black and white photography and sometimes nonlinear dialogue very artistically inspiring, but his film is not just empty posturing. These characters are genuine even when their situations are pure whimsy, and the intelligent humour that smoulders off the surface of the screen perfectly combines with the rough edges of the story’s themes to make for a highly satisfying, loftily intellectual but never pretentious experience. The performances are all superb, especially the very lively and hilarious Benigni, whose clownishness suits the contrast of Waits’ dry incredulity and Lurie’s frustrated introvert, plus there are delightful cameos by an intense Ellen Barkin and a lovely Nicoletta Braschi (Benigni’s real-life wife).