Forget what you know
Slim is a wannabe drug kingpin who forgets the first rule of the chemical dependency trade. No, it's not the one about getting high on your own supply. And it has absolutely nothing to do with talking/not talking about Fight Club. Our Tony Montana in training lets loyalty loose in his white powder bid-ness, and before you can say "jailhouse snitch," he finds himself doing eight years, hard in the big house. There he is surrounded by the prison equivalent of the wacky next door neighbors from television sitcoms, which translates into heroin addicts, Chicano and Aryan gangs, and a hillbilly who regales all with stories of sex with his "barnyard" friends. As he serves his Down Time, he learns valuable life lessons, like how to manufacture and sharpen shanks, proper anal lubrication, the best way to enjoy chipped beef on toast (same thing), and how to intimidate Bible thumping serial killers. Eventually he gets out, settles his scores, and wipes his vendettas clean. Now if he would only swab the massive perspiration from off his sweat soaked face, we'd truly understand the rehabilitative success of the penal system.
In retrospect, Down Time seems like a "can't miss" combination. Take one ex-con filmmaker who has a movie school education and marry his vision of the real world of prison with a script torn directly from the actual incidents that made up his (and other cons) incarcerated life and BANG!—You should have an intense, highly charged dramatic thriller, like OZ except without all the soap opera bullcrap. And there are brief, microsecond moments where Down Time comes alive, where the dynamic between rival factions and the oppressive nature of prison life creates intriguing suspense. But the minute these social misfits open their mouth—WHAM, like a full-fisted body cavity search, the potential of this penitentiary tone poem goes slamming to the shower stall floor, waiting for the fresh meat to pick it up, along with the soap. The chief problem with Down Time as a motion picture is first timer Sean Wilson's horrendous script. Burdened with so many clichés that they end up gang raping each other and turning into hyper-maxims, this is a film that professes to have life behind bars down to a naturalistic science. But that doesn't mean that it's told or talked about in a compelling or original fashion. Wilson lets idiots talk like morons, crime bosses talk like dipsticks, and our hero/anti-hero/antagonist narrate like he's reading selections from Oscar Wilde's jailhouse confessional as reinterpreted by Quentin Tarantino's mentally challenged brother. Down Time just drones on from pointless scene to suggested prison violence to ridiculous sub-plot, only occasionally stopping off to let the verbally passé Slim regale us with his voice-over tale of woe. Bathed in enough sweat to suggest that he ran (not drove) all the way to Mexico, our yarn spinner spits out his stilted dialogue like he's auditioning for a job as a subway announcer. His weak speeches, composed by the never heard of a re-write director, severely undermine any potential impact.
But, in addition, part of the problem also lies in the inherent needs of drama. Professors of Creative Writing love to expound on the pretense that a scribbler should always scribe about what he or she knows. The excuse they abuse is that what may seem boring to the author would appear spectacular and rambunctious to us. Well, Down Time is the exception that disproves that rule or visa versa, I think. Even if every event happened to Wilson and his fellow inmates exactly the way he recalled it from his memories, journal entries, and night terrors, this twice told tale of doing the time for doing the crime is just plain uninvolving. There is no suspense or arch to the storyline. The dichotomous approach of setting the first half in county jail and the second half in state (or federal) prison fails to delineate the differences Wilson wants to expose. Even the attempts at shock and sensationalism (the God fearing multiple murdering maniac, the hayseed cousin kisser) ring false. Screenwriters and novelists understand that the everyday story of small town does not necessarily make for compelling fiction, so they spice it up with sex, violence, intrigue, jokes, moral crises, and talking, ass-kicking cats. All we get from Wilson's stint in the joint is occasional jargon, some incredibly retarded stories about farm animals, and a working knowledge of Pinochle. Down Time is a movie that has its intentions and truth telling tattooed along its shoulders and chest like gang signs, daring audiences and critics to dismiss them. Fortunately, the sloppy fashion in which it unfolds, both literally and cinematically, allows us to laser the relevance out of every situation.
Down Time was shot on video over the course of several months and then, for some odd reason, it got transferred over onto film. This gives the image a kind of jumpy, Keystone Kops strobe light feel. You half expect to see Harold Lloyd or Ben Turpin run across the frame chasing their wind blown hat. Artisan then captures this less than stellar presentation in all of its full-framed flawed-ness. There is compression and pixelization, and on several occasions incredibly oversaturated darks. About the only time the picture looks decent is when a Super 8 camera is employed to offer that age-old directors trick of creating fuzzy, distant memories out of old home movie footage. Oddly, the aural quality of the DVD is far better than its image, not that there is something wonderful to listen to. While the dialogue is mixed way down in the channels, the Residents meets Romper Room ridiculousness of the "original score" more than erodes your eardrums with atonal tinkling. Not that the pseudo hardcore rap/punk makes matters any better. One song actually has the lyrics "sucks…this sucks" over a fine example of said in the guise of a guitar riff and drum line. And just like Murphy's Law (lets name it now, Artisan's Edict), this terrible film gets a full-length commentary from the obviously deluded filmmaker. He believes he has made a stellar work of neo-realistic art that stands the test as both a film and a document of authenticity. All he's really done is crib scenes and ideas from other directors and digest them into this brutal, brainless stew. His narrative is self-serving, occasionally arcane, and only rarely insightful (it's nice to know that Wilson, an ex-con himself, hired so many of his fellow cellmates to fill out the credit list). But along with trailers, a music video, and artistically complex inserts, it's merely par for the concourse when it comes to releases from the infamous company that gives "craftsmen" a bum rap. Like conjugal visits with an infected fruit bat, Down Time is painful and pallid. Cruel and unusual punishment is unnecessary when all you need is a viewing of this film to curb recidivism.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Writer/Director Sean Wilson
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