An original vision, tightly woven
You’ve never heard of anyone involved in Lowlife, either before the camera or behind. And that’s part of what makes it such a staggering gut-punch of entertainment. Nothing has prepared you for what Lowlife is offering.
Sure, yes, there will be obvious comparisons to the work of Quentin Tarantino as his Pulp Fiction is probably the most obvious anchor-point to compare Lowlife to. It’s episodic in nature, complete with title cards and certain chapters overlapping and connecting to others in surprising and unexpected ways. That’s about where the comparisons end, however. And as Tarantino happens to be one of the most singular and gifted filmmakers of our time, it tends to (unintentionally?) dilute the talent of anyone you’re comparing him to when you make references like these. Honestly, the vast majority of Tarantino copycat films aren’t a hair on the ass of QT’s oeuvre. It’s just that Ryan Prows’ debut feature is so bold and stunning and confident and fearless, it does bring to mind a young Tarantino in a way that I hope will come off as complimentary of Prows, his team, and the film itself. And that’s the last I’m going to speak of Tarantino, because Lowlife deserves a spotlight all its own.
Aptly titled, Lowlife aims to rub your face in the grimy underbelly its characters dwell in… which appears to be some kind of psychotic subsection of Los Angeles ruled with an iron fist by the greasiest gangster to hit the screen in years: Teddy “Bear” Haynes (Mark Burnham). In the opening sequence of the film, we’re introduced to the characters who will hold this spiderweb together. Crystal (Nicki Micheaux) is a recovering addict and hole in the wall motel owner who might be the soul of the picture, and who is about to have the very worst day of her natural life. We meet her confronting an ICE agent who is taking some of her patrons away in the middle of the night. She’s powerless to stop what’s happening, and those patrons end up in the underground lair of Teddy, where they’re “processed” for their bodies, whether in sex slavery or for harvest. The title card blasts onto screen as Teddy is putting a bullet through a woman’s brain. Then our opening credits overlay one of the grisliest sights I can recall as Teddy harvests the poor woman’s organs beneath his dreadful dive restaurant. Masterfully, this introduction ushers us into a world of gore and grime, tension (brought about through the pulse-pounding score from Kreng), a heightened reality, and even prepares you for the pitch black sense of humor that will carry you through Lowlife.
The Monsters chapter introduces us to El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), a masked luchador and flunky for Teddy. El Monstruo as a character is quite illustrative of the staggering quality found within Lowlife. Through a tight script that’s penned by Prows, Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson, Shaye Ogbonna, and Maxwell Michael Towson, a whole mythology is built around Monstruo as a legendary champion of the downtrodden spoken of throughout the Mexican community in this film. Our Monstruo takes the mythology very seriously, revering his father El Monstruo, Sr. But, failing to live up to his father (who was actually a prick and the source of our Monstruo’s colossal failings as a human being), Zarate’s Monstruo is prone to rage-filled murderous blackouts, has sold his honor for Teddy, and swings wildly between thoughts of suicide and delusions of heroic grandeur. He has pulled Teddy’s adoptive daughter Kaylee out of slavery and they’re expecting a child at any time. Monstruo believes his great purpose in life is to continue the bloodline and pass along his luchador mask (which he wears at all times) to a son. He believes this at the expense of actually being anywhere close to a good husband to the thick skinned but drug addicted Kaylee (Santana Dempsey). El Monstruo is indeed a monster, aiding in Teddy’s disgusting sex ring. But he wants to be a champion, and he is crippled by his need for fatherly approval.
In this chapter things go south with Teddy and Kaylee and Monstruo get into an enormous fight. She disappears after Monstruo blacks out from rage, and Monstruo becomes obsessed with finding her and his unborn son. “The legacy is all”.
The “fiends” chapter brings us back around to motel owner Crystal (Nicki Micheaux) and her lover Dan (King Orba). In the lowest of their addictions, they gave up a baby for adoption, and it’s haunted their lives ever since. This chapter includes some of the most touching human tragedy in the film as Crystal, now sober and invested in her grimy motel, is desperate to find a kidney donation before Dan’s fails. They’re clearly a couple in love who have been through hell together and are experiencing new doses of hell now. Unaware of the depths of Teddy’s depravity, Crystal uses the last of their funds to hire Teddy to find Dan a new kidney. It turns out their daughter is a perfect match, and she’s willing to help because it’s her birth parents. Or so Teddy says. This chapter also offers a masterclass in deepening tension as Crystal descends into the very worst day of her natural life, only to find new motivation before the day is through.
One also can’t overlook the absolutely stunning practical gore effects of Lowlife, so visually effective that they almost bring to mind the horrific and beautiful mutated gore of this year’s Annihilation. In the introduction and both the Monsters and Fiends chapters, there are instances of practical gore that are simply astounding. Sometimes wrought by our characters, sometimes inflicted on themselves, Lowlife elevates gore to such an art as to deepen the richness of its tale through the loving care with which it treats destroyed flesh and blood.
In this chapter we’re introduced to new characters, some halfway through the runtime of the film, which will become the final key players in this puzzle box ensemble. Probably the funniest chapter in a wickedly dark film that is almost sold as a comedy in its trailer, old friends reunite when Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) picks up his best friend Randy (Jon Oswald in a breakout performance) as he’s released from prison. Keith has gone legitimate and had kids with none other than Randy’s former girlfriend Nessa while Randy was inside. “Legitimate” for Keith also means: running accounting for Teddy (even if he isn’t aware of Teddy’s shadier dealings). Meanwhile, Randy exits prison with a massive swastika tattooed on his face. Probably the sweetest and most doggedly loyal character in the entire film, one of Lowlife’s acts of genius is setting up the guy with a swastika tattooed on his face (an act of desperation to stay alive in the never ending race war in his prison) as a moral compass for the entire narrative. It sounds extremely “problematic” in these troubled times, but it’s handled with genuine nuance. Randy and Keith’s chapter is its own roller coaster ride as two best friends are reacquainted and Keith reveals his character over and over again by letting Randy know that he took up with his girl, lies about taking money from Teddy under the table, and more. Unfortunately, Keith doesn’t understand just who Teddy really is, and soon Keith and Randy are forced to go and kidnap a woman at Teddy’s behest lest Keith’s family be killed. Through this all, Randy proves himself a loyal friend to the casually selfish Keith. Randy isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but he knows how to survive, and he knows how to be loyal and respect the code. There’s a core decency to Randy that eludes most of the characters in Lowlife (and yes, again, this is a man with a giant swastika tattooed on his face in 2018 that I’m speaking of).
By the end of this chapter, the various fates of El Monstruo, Kaylee, Crystal, Keith, Randy, and even Teddy have converged and we find them all in a single motel room together with all types of shit about to pop off.
The film’s final chapter is a sickeningly satisfying payoff that earns every gun shot and flesh wound, every death and redemption. Each disparate narrative from each chapter weaves together marvelously and provides character arcs for our main players that couldn’t be more fitting. It’s a staggering accomplishment of screenwriting, low budget filmmaking, and pure and simple collaborative cohesion.
Lowlife aims to tell a whale of a tale through the eyes of the unseen. This is a fantastical (nay phantasmagorical) tale, with a genre pulse, of what goes on when mainstream America averts its eyes and pretends everything is okay. Our country is a horror show and those who find themselves outside the ideal of the American dream must fight for their dignity or suffer at the hands of the opportunists which our system also allows to thrive. Lowlife grabs you by the collar and rubs your nose in the reality of our underbelly. It’s just simultaneously going to do its best to thrill, shock, and excite you along the way.
The audience for Lowlife is a limited one, what with the shocking levels of depravity and gore it both reveals and revels in. But those who take chances or enjoy some danger in their cinema will be rewarded with one of the most thrilling debut features in recent memory and one of the very best films of 2018.
And I’m Out.
Lowlife is now available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory