Dark comedy/crime caper outing Lowlife is one of the year’s most eccentric yet accessible genre films, one that has a big heart beating beneath its gritty, sometimes gorey exterior. Director Ryan Prows’ debut feature is inspired lunacy that balances its disparate elements impressively.
The film boasts an ensemble cast that shines magnificently. Ricardo Adam Zarate stars as El Monstruo, a masked luchador (Mexican professional wrestler) who has hit the skids in his ancestral quest to help the unfortunate. He has been reduced to work for murderous organ-harvester and sex trafficker Teddy “Bear” Haynes (Mark Burnham), whose adopted daughter Kaylee (Santana Dempsey) is married to El Monstruo and pregnant with their baby. Add to the mix motel owner Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), Haynes’ embezzling accountant Keith (co-writer Shaye Ogbanna), Keith’s friend Randy (Jon Oswald), who has just been released from prison with a swastika tattoo covering his face, and corrupt ICE agent Fowler (Jose Rosette), and overlapping pieces are put in place to deliver a cinematic experience that freely wheels between gut-busting, gut-wrenching, and even heart-wrenching.
To give much more away about what happens, as well as whose paths cross and how, would be doing a great disservice to future viewers. Suffice it to say that everyone between Haynes’ taco restaurant headquarters, El Monstruo’s home, and Crystal’s motel is either working for, being conned by, or planning vengeance on Haynes. He’s a slimy villain who absolutely lives up to the film’s title.
Although five writers had a hand in the screenplay — Prows, Ogbanna, Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson, and Maxwell Michael Towson — the film flows well, and the script comes off like a true team effort. The characters feel fresh and the protagonists’ predicaments all have unique spins. The action comes fast and often, with plenty of comedy to both heighten the absurdity and occasionally take the edge off of heavier moments, but Prows gives these characters’ stories time to breathe, allowing viewers to see the gentler, more humane side of those who possess such a trait.
Lowlife is broken up into four segments, with a few of the scenes overlapping or being looked at from different perspectives. The motivations of the characters intertwine steadily, building to a thrilling climax. Prows does a terrific job of keeping the proceedings engaging and well balanced.
The special makeup effects crew has done a jaw-droppingly superb job in creating the after-effects of an assortment of violent incidents. Prows knows this full well, as he has cinematographer Benjamin Kitchens linger on these gruesome aftermaths.
Lowlife is a genre film fan’s dream, with its heart in retro grindhouse territory but its vision in a wholly modern place. This pulp story is full of surprises, suspense, laughs, and unexpected poignancy. Watch for this one to appear on many “Best of 2017” lists, including mine, and keep an eye out for it as it continues its film festival run.
Lowlife screened at London’s FrightFest (August 24–28).