Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki may not have become a household name in arthouse circles until the U.S. release of Match Factory Girl in 1992, but by then he had already established an international reputation with Ariel, which was named the Best Foreign Language Film of 1991 by the National Society of Film Critics. A series of unfortunate events befall the film's hero, Taisto (Turo Pajala).
First, he loses his job when the mine closes down. A suicidal friend gives him a car, and Taisto takes all his money and heads to the city to find work. He's quickly robbed by a couple of thugs, and shows up in town with no money and no job.
Soon, he meets Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto), a resourceful divorcée who works a wide variety of jobs to support her young son and pay off their mortgage. Will you disappear in the morning? Irmeli dryly asks on their first night together. No, Taisto responds emotionlessly, We'll be together forever. Unable to find work, Taisto tries to sell his car.
But then he runs into one of the men who robbed him, who pulls a knife on him. Taisto manages to disarm the man, and is subduing him when the police arrive. Taisto is convicted of assault and attempted robbery. He winds up in a cell with Mikkonen (Matti Pellonpää), who is in prison for manslaughter.
He claims he's innocent, but tells Taisto that by the time he gets out of jail, he won't be able to go three hours without killing someone. When Irmeli comes for a visit, Taisto impulsively proposes, and before long, she's helping him and Mikkonen plot their escape.