Director: Ryan Prows
Cast: Nicki Micheaux, Ricardo Adam Zarate, Jon Oswald, Shaye Ogbonna, Santana Dempsey, Mark Burnham
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The feature debut of director Ryan Prows (a member of the comedy troupe Tomm Fondle, with whom he co-wrote the script), this blackly comic L.A. crime thriller borrows so liberally from Tarantino that it’s practically a homage. Whether homage or outright theft, the film invokes the comparison, but it does so without ever being irritating or derivative, thanks to Prows’ sure-handed direction.
With chapter headings like “Monsters”, “Fiends”, “Thugs” and “Criminals”, Lowlife begins in present-day L.A., where motel owner Crsytal (Nicki Micheaux) is powerless to stop a raid on her premises by a corrupt immigration (ICE) agent (Jose Rosete), who promptly arrests all her occupants. It turns out he works for ruthless local criminal Teddy “Bear” Haynes (Mark Burnham), whose taco stand is a front for prostitution and organ trafficking, and the prisoners are either killed, harvested or put to work.
In fact, Teddy is at the centre of each the intersecting stories in the film. His enforcer, El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate) is a disgraced Mexican wrestler who’s married to Teddy’s pregnant adopted daughter Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), and who dreams of passing on his legacy. When Kaylee mysteriously disappears, a frantic El Monstruo (who’s given to horrifically violent rage blackouts) goes on the warpath.
Meanwhile, former junkie Crystal tries to pull out of a deal she’s made with Teddy to provide a kidney for her seriously ill alcoholic husband, Dan (King Orba), and, at the same time, Teddy’s accountant, Keith (Shaye Ogbonna), picks up his idiot best friend, Randy (Jon Oswald), when he’s released from prison and is horrified to discover that he has a giant swastika tattooed over his face.
Over the course of the film, the lives of the characters intersect in unexpected ways, thanks to a Tarantino-esque timeline that keeps looping back, switching perspectives and filling in backgrounds for each of the players. That narrative device never quite delivers the expected Pulp Fiction pay-off moment, but it does allow the film to play with audience sympathies through the continuing shift in focus.
In addition to keeping tight control of the tone (which is surprisingly serious, rather than played for laughs, as you might have expected given the comedy troupe involvement) and maintaining a suitably fast pace, Prows also has a terrific eye for a strong image, whether it’s a number of so-gory-you-have-to-look-away moments – the organ donor sequence is especially gruesome – or a shot of Lowlife’s unlikely collection of de facto heroes that suddenly brings home how refreshing it is that this film’s main characters are a permanently masked Mexican, a 30-something black woman, a mixed-race pregnant teenager and a tattooed ex-con. With its strong focus on minority characters and a less-than-positive view of corrupt immigration agents, it’s hard not to read this as a stinging critique of today’s America. The surprise is that the film ends up striking a touching note of hope, finding empathy in unexpected places.
The cast are all excellent, with Oswald, Micheaux and Zarate the stand-outs, while Burnham makes a suitably nasty villain (and, coincidentally, has an acting style that is strongly reminscent of Tarantino’s). In addition, Prows includes a number of nice directorial touches that add intriguing elements, most notably the soundtrack and editing effects whenever El Monstruo has a rage blackout. There’s also a superb score from Belgian composer Kreng, if you like that sort of thing.
Stylishly directed and sharply scripted, this is an entertaining thriller that delivers thrills, dark laughs and buckets of blood, marking out writer-director Prows (and the rest of Tomm Fondle) as a serious talent to watch.