Loosely drawn from debuting director-scenarist Sean Wilson’s own stint in the slammer, B&W indie drama “Down Time” is an interesting, albeit uneven, effort that wavers between slice-of-prison-life anecdote and underdeveloped, more conventional suspense plotting. Erratic narrative and polish suggest production woes that long-aborning pic (primary footage was shot five years ago) couldn’t fully cover in the editing room. Still, it’s worth a look by indie-focused fests; commercially, best chances lie in homevid.
An inept partner and a police sting land heroin addict/dealer Slim (William Van Nolan) first in county jail, then — having negotiated a not-so-great sentencing “deal” — in a Southern state pen. Awkward structure spends too much time getting to the latter destination, where Slim whiles away some years in the company of fellow abstainers from the population’s rigid, race-divided power struggles. These scenes are often loose and funny, with David Burkson and David Fine particularly entertaining as two of the prison’s more harmless “characters.”
Meanwhile, some stolen heroin sets in motion a chain of payback violence presided over by Sammytown (Sam McBride), the white inmates’ heavily tattooed ringleader. This grimmer, more action-oriented thread, which dominates pic’s penultimate stretch, suffers from a hasty buildup. It also has little to do with Slim, whose rather superfluous direct-to-camera musings throughout are at last revealed as coming after his prison release — and subsequent unpleasant reunion with both that onetime partner (Peter Quartaroli) and a treacherous ex-girlfriend (Joy Garner). Latter relationships are too rotely sketched for this poorly staged confrontation to carry much impact, let alone credibility.
Indeed, feature’s mercury keeps rising and plunging re resourceful no-budget atmospherics vs. staginess, improv-sounding vs. stilted dialogue, pro vs. weak or amateur perfs. (Production uses some ex-cons as extras and thesps, as well as various real prison locations, especially San Francisco’s pen-turned-museum Alcatraz.) Biggest problems, however, rest in spotty character and story development, suggesting funds ran out before all intended scenes could be shot.
Given that, plus some inconsistent tech qualities, “Down Time” still has enough quirky and intriguing aspects to hold attention. Though shot on 16mm, print screened at S.F. Indie fest was digital vid.