Lowlife is one of those exciting feature debuts that announces the arrival of a filmmaker who instantly has your attention. Sharp and unpredictable with an unexpected edge of empathy amidst the bloodshed, the directorial debut from Ryan Prows is a manic pitch-black comedy about the desperation of the downtrodden that ricochets through the Los Angeles criminal underground via overlapping tales of kidnapping, murder, and revenge.
Taking a cue from the post-Pulp Fiction playbook, Lowlife stages a single story over a fractured timeline, where we watch the story unfold from a number of perspectives, each new vignette offering more insight and information on the crazy set of overlapping circumstances. It’s perhaps unfair to set expectations for a first-time filmmaker against Quentin Tarantino, but the influence is obvious, and unlike most of the early Tarantino ripoffs that popped up in the 90s, Prows spins that influence into something unique, wisely borrowing more from Tarantino’s knack for structure and compelling characters than trying to mimic his flashy dialogue and staging. Prows’ first feature isn’t entirely sure-footed and he makes some messy missteps along the way, most notably in the first act, which belies the quality of the story that follows.
Lowlife cold opens on a lone ICE agent, in the dead of night, pulling a sketchy, unsettling raid at a cheap motel. Politics aside, everything about it feels wrong — it’s too unofficial, too aggressive, and the motel owner Crystal (Nicki Micheaux) tries to put a stop to it, only to end up with a gun in her face. It feels wrong because it is wrong, just like everything else that’s about to go down in this sordid tale. The man rounding up immigrants isn’t doing the bidding of the government, he’s a henchman for the local crime boss, Teddy (Mark Burnham), and those undocumented workers aren’t going to detention facilities, they’re headed straight for an underground dungeon where Teddy forces the young and beautiful into prostitution and slaughters the rest to harvest their organs. Welcome to Lowlife. I promise, it’s a lot more fun than it sounds at first. Despite the rocky start, Lowlife film triumphs because of its overlapping web of three central characters, each more engaging and unexpected than the last.
In the film’s first characters vignette, “Monsters,” we meet El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate) in a rather bold extended monologue. Dressed as a Luchador in a baby blue suit, El Monstruo explains he’s the descendant of a famed lineage of Mexican warriors, dwarfed by the giants that preceded him. Unlike his proud ancestors, who were heroes to the people, El Monstruo lives a life of crime and violence as Teddy’s son-in-law and devoted right-hand-man. When the downtrodden look to him for hope, he insists he’s “not that Monstruo” with heavy sadness, oppressing the very people he’s supposed to protect. When he’s threatened, and he’s threatened a lot, Monstruo blacks out in fits of explosive violence that always seem to end with severed limbs or bashed brains. Unable to live up to that legacy himself, all his hope lies with his unborn child, who’s eight months along in the belly of Monstruo’s heroin-addicted wife Kaylee (Santana Dempsey) — Teddy’s adopted daughter — who is desperate to escape the sleazy life her father built, but can’t outrun her addictions.
In the next segment, “Fiends”, we circle back to Crystal, the quiet motel owner who spends most of the film bottoming out on new lows of regret until an unexpected shot at redemption comes her way. Barely crawling out of the grips of alcoholism, Crystal scraps together every last dime she has to get her husband a black market kidney transplant and from the moment she hands over that cash, her whole life spirals out of control. Micheaux has to carry the heaviest burden in her performance, without any of the film’s cheeky comedic bits to carry her through, and if it weren’t for her work, the film’s journey toward something more honest and intimate than the antics just wouldn’t sell.
Finally, there are the “Thugs”, an oddball duo of childhood friends, reunited under criminal circumstances. Keith (Shaye Ogbonna), a suburban father finds himself thrust into the chaos after he embezzles money from the wrong man. In order to pay off his debt, Keith is enlisted for some seriously dirty deeds and to pull off the crime, he recruits his Randy (Jon Oswald), who’s fresh out of an 11-year stretch in prison. Randy’s loud, abrasive, and oh yeah, there’s the matter of the giant swastika he tattooed over his face while he was in lock up, but the combination of Lowlife’s zany script and Oswald’s standout performance make him the most compelling, surprising character of the lot.
There’s one big exception and that’s Teddy; a cartoonish villain who offers nothing but a steady stream of bullets and bad attitude, and who is never actually scary despite being rooted entirely in violence and exploitation. He has no nuance and no redeeming qualities, and more often than not feels like he was plucked from another movie. Which makes it doubly unfortunate that he’s the central figure in the film’s first act.
Once, Lowlife clears that hurdle, it’s off like rapid-fire rocket, hurtling through one shocking, blisteringly funny sequence after the next. The film pulls no punches — even ones aimed at the head of a pregnant woman — and that thick layer of trashy humor and grimy, pulpy violence may turn off some viewers, but for those who prefer your drama unhinged with a surprising twist of melancholy and tenderness may find a new favorite.
Lowlife made its New York premiere at What the Fest!? and arrives in theaters this Friday, April 6.