Lowlife was the biggest surprise of Frightfest 2017. The trailer and poster (which looks, perhaps purposefully, like a vagina for no discernible reason) are both garbage. But, ignoring them, the debut feature from Canadian writer-director Ryan Prows is something very special indeed; a gritty, poignant, violent and frequently hilarious glimpse into the lives of people rarely shown onscreen.
Divided into four parts, labelled Monsters, Fiends, Thugs and Criminals, the film focuses on three groups of interconnected characters, from hit-man/Luchador El Monstruo to a motel owner sourcing money to fund her alcoholic husband’s liver transplant, a crime boss trafficking human organs on the black market and a regular dude picking up his buddy from prison, only to find he’s got an unfortunate tattoo while in the slammer.
A thrilling opening sequence sees ICE officers (or, at least, people posing as ICE officers) rounding up illegal immigrants from a seedy motel. It feels ripped from the news, so raw and topical in nature that the subsequent moments in an underground bunker, which see local crime boss Teddy “Bear” Haynes (Mark Burnham) cutting up body parts to the first strains of Kreng’s ear-worm score, feel almost surreal in comparison.
Such is the fine line Lowlife treads between surrealist black comedy and gut-punch realism. It takes place in an underworld not usually seen in movies, giving it a kind of Mexican Tarantino feel (though this is grittier, gorier and presented with bucket-loads more heart and edge). There’s a sense Prows knows this world intimately, and that he feels obligated to shine a light on it and its inhabitants.
As for those inhabitants, the cast, mostly actors of colour, is uniformly terrific. El Monstruo (played by relative unknown Ricardo Adam Zarate, in his first big role) in particular is an icon in the making. The speech he gives to a young woman on her quinceañera (a ritual most of us will know thanks to My Super Sweet 16) is hilarious in its intensity, emotion and complete inappropriateness. It’s also the payoff for a hell of a joke.
El Monstruo has betrayed his people, and how he’s torn between his job and his heritage makes him a hugely compelling character, sold entirely by Zarate, who wears a Lucha mask throughout. As his boss, Barnham is like a dodgier, greasier Michael Shannon, a crime-lord who maybe has a conscience, maybe not. We watch him vaping, possibly in an attempt to be cool, and struggling to start a Sellotape spiral. He’s a brilliant mixture of ineptitude and ruthlessness.
As Randy, Jon Oswald (another newcomer) is a revelation. It’s bad enough he has a swastika tattooed on his face when his (black) friend picks him up from prison, but Randy gets dragged into illegal activities almost immediately upon his release. Oswald manages to be hilarious and hugely empathetic in the role, coming into his own during the movie’s blood-soaked finale in a big way and stealing most of the best lines throughout.
Prows brings together this ragtag bunch through competing timelines, paying homage to Pulp Fiction while effortlessly sidestepping that film’s saggy middle part (thankfully, Bruce Willis doesn’t show up here either) and keeping the audience on their toes. It’s a good job the characters feel as real as they do, with hidden depths revealed only as the single day on which the story takes place, wears on, because the story is relatively simple.
So-hot-right-now SFX duo Josh and Sierra Russell (Southbound, Holidays, Beyond The Gates, etc) continue to show off their hugely impressive skill-set in Lowlife‘s gorier moments, of which there are strikingly many, while that aforementioned Kreng score keeps the tempo up during its downtime. The story, slight as it is, hooks you in from the outset and doesn’t let go as it hops all over L.A’s seediest spots, rubbing our noses in the dirt.
The movie’s biggest selling point, though, is its incredible cast, all of whom do remarkable work as basically good people trying to do the right thing (they’re so unseasoned as criminals, one hides money in a pizza box of all places). El Monstruo’s redemptive arc is worth the price of admission alone, but Lowlife really is one of the best movies you’re likely to see this year (though a US release date is still forthcoming). Simply unmissable.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Ryan Prows
Writer(s): Ryan Prows, Tim Cario, Jake Gibson, Shaye Ogbonna, Maxwell Michael Towson
Stars: Ricardo Adam Zarate, Nicki Micheaux, Jon Oswald, Mark Burnham
Studio/ Production Co: TBC
Length: 96 minutes