Bigger Show Review: Lowlife (Fantasia 2017)

   Ryan Prows’ Lowlife is a blood-soaked, Acid trip through the scummy and sun drenched underbelly of L.A.  Five titled acts relate the intertwining lives of a desperate motel owner, an honor-bound luchador, a pregnant heroine junky, a swastika-branded ex-con and his black best friend. Yeah, few films live up to their title quite as well as Lowlife. This diverse cast of delinquents are brought together by their shared debt to Teddy Bear Haynes, the local pimp/organ harvester/taco shop owner/psychopath who has a chokehold on each character in one form or another.

     The first act serves as an introduction to Haynes himself (Gleefully played by Mark Burnham) as well as his henchmen who kidnap and murder immigrants all while giving the audience a glimpse into not only a sex trade but also an organ trafficking ring. And this is just the first five minutes. Beginning your film with such deplorable violence is a risky step. However, by doing so, Prows provides a frightening reminder of just how vulnerable some people are based only on their immigration status, and also really sets up Haynes as a dangerous and sadistic criminal who’s deserving of our hate and fear. It’s challenging to watch but powerfully effective at what it attempts.

     The following three vignette, “Monsters“, “Fiends“, and “Thugs” each highlight one of the other main characters of the film, whose interweaving stories all come together for the bloody finale. “Monsters” focuses on the disgraced luchador El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), who’s name and legacy were passed down to him by his father, and his father before him. We are never told exactly what brought about his fall from the ring, but soon it becomes apparent that when he becomes too angry, Monstruo suffers from blinding rages that he has no recollection of afterward. Monstruo’s fury is signaled by a high pitched, industrial “scream” followed by a snap cut to the post-rage fallout. Where the viewer, like El Monstruo, must attempt to piece together what transpired by the bloody an oft hilarious carnage he awakens to.

It’s a fun and surprisingly original bit, and really makes El Monstruo feel like the over the top character that he is. Monstruo, we learn, works as an enforcer for Teddy; collecting debts and guarding captives. Though he dreams of honoring his father’s legacy, he does Teddy’s dirty work to provide for his wife Kaylee, who is pregnant with the next generation of Monstruo, and who also happens to be Teddy’s adoptive daughter. And against the backdrop of El Monstruo’ s through line, we learn that the motel owner, Krystal (Nicki Micheaux),  has turned to Teddy to try and get a new kidney for her dying husband and is harboring some secrets of her own

     Delving any further into the plot here would be a disservice to Prows’ storytelling, but suffice to say it only gets better. The convergence of the stories is outstanding, and the finale is a satisfying bloodbath that also manages to be genuinely touching. The performances are all well done, and each character is likeable in a unique way. Zarate’s performance of El Monstruo in particular, is so compelling that I would happily watch a movie of just him.

     The scummy cast of criminals and the non-linear structure make for easy comparisons to films such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. And while there certainly are some Tarantino-isms to be found, Lowlife doesn’t take too much from any one influence. The story has a nihilistic optimism that would feel out of place in most Tarantino films. Almost all of our characters want to see Haynes dead, but it’s not for justice or revenge. Instead, the motivation is protection of self or loved ones. This is not a film about bringing a man to justice for the wrongs that he’s done. This is a film about putting one sadistic son of a bitch in the ground for the bloody destruction he’ll wreak if he’s allowed to keep breathing.

Lowlife is an outstanding, exploitation infused black comedy that manages to be both brutal and uplifting. One of the standout films of the Fantasia Film Festival, be on the lookout for it and keep an eye on for all of the future updates.

5/5 barrels.

by Matt Miles (2017)


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