Movie Review: Lowlife
Director: Ryan Prows
Writers: Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson, Shaye Ogbonna, Ryan Prows, Maxwell Michael Towson
Stars: Nicki Micheaux, Ricardo Adam Zarate, Jon Oswald, Mark Burnham
Remember when Pulp Fiction came out and then everyone and their mother made a film that consisted of interweaving vignettes? But most of them just couldn’t pull it off with the same kind of panache? This viewer still has an instant dislike of this kind of storytelling because it is rarely done well. So, when the title “Monsters” came up during the first fifteen minutes of Lowlife, my expectations and enthusiasm dwindled a bit. Happily, I had unfairly prejudged the movie and I’m beyond excited to tell you how very wrong I was.
Director Ryan Prows full feature debut brings a very motley crew of people together in a series of vignettes that explore the ugly underbelly of downtown L.A. and the monsters, fiends, thugs and criminals that inhabit it. One way or another, every story filters through Teddy “Bear” Haynes; he’s a universally feared criminal who runs a taco shop and deals in illegal organ harvesting and sex trafficking. If it’s despicable, Teddy is the king bastard of it and Mark Burnham is a fucking stand out in this role. Teddy is a down and dirty piece of human garbage, but Burnham manages to make him personable, amusing and fearsome all at once.
The first story, “Monsters”, introduces us to El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate). A luchador mask wearing right hand man to Teddy, he is fabled to be a hero to the downtrodden, but this El Monstruo seems to have wandered off of the noble path that his father and grandfather forged when they were wearing the mask. Oftentimes speaking in the third person, he is an expectant father with a very, very bad temper and a singularly focused mission to keep up the El Monstruo legacy.
“Fiends” focuses on Crystal, a woman who is trying to purchase a kidney for her alcoholic husband. The owner of a hotel that specializes in cash only clientele, Crystal has saved every dollar she has to buy this kidney, despite knowing that it belongs to her daughter Kaylee (Santana Dempsey). Kaylee who, as a baby, was sold by Crystal to Teddy for drug money. It’s only when she sees that Kaylee is pregnant that she decides this is a poor moral decision. Played by Nicki Micheaux, she manages to make Crystal sympathetic and real in a way that finds you rooting for her.
“Thugs” is the sequence that really brings everyone together and it’s also the one with a very serious dose of excellent black humor. Teddy forces Keith and Randy (Shaye Ogbonna and Jon Oswald) to kidnap Kaylee, but in an effort to hide from Teddy, they end up at Crystal’s motel. Moments later, El Monstruo happens upon the hotel to use the payphone and request help from Teddy. Now that everyone will find themselves in the same small, shitty hotel room, things really get interesting because I have only begun to explain the personal connections among all of these people and despite all of these criss cross narratives being almost unbelievable, the deplorable nature of Teddy makes it very easy to believe that all of these things would come together in such a perfect, chaotic mess. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Oswald delivers the kind of comedic performance that actually makes you feel bad for a person who has a full face swastika tattoo.
Prows’ direction is a personal calling card of unique camera angles that elevate emotions and beautifully showcase the gore that flows freely throughout. In fact, the makeup effects in Lowlife are pretty fucking amazing. As are the hair and makeup that makes both Micheaux and Dempsey so “unbeautified” as to be almost unrecognizable. And that full face swastika tattoo? It looks like an authentic, lived in prison tattoo.
The strange tone of humor that runs through Lowlife is the one thing that keeps it from being the kind of movie that makes you want to kill yourself and also makes all of the fantastical events seem plausible. Prows has crafted a visually appealing film overflowing with outstanding performances, relatable antiheroes and a killer score (Pepijn Caudron is killing it) that brings all of the action, blood, guts and mayhem together in a wonderfully absurd package.
In Theaters and On Demand April 6.
Lisa Fremont | Twitter: @lcfremont