Mix the insane violence and weaving vignettes of “Pulp Fiction” with the seedy underbelly of “Breaking Bad,” and you have Ryan Prows’ directorial debut, “Lowlife,” a messy but ultimately interesting look a a group of downtrodden individuals who get mixed up in an organ harvesting scheme.
“Lowlife” is broken into four interweaving vignettes that move back and forth through time, slowly revealing different sides to each character, coloring in the story, and tangling them up even tighter into a web of blackmail, deception, kidnapping, and revenge. And the film’s title can certainly be applied to every character in their own right, as each vignette reveals more about their character and the mess they all have found themselves in.
The film opens with an ICE agent pulling off a sketchy, solo raid of a cheap motel at night. Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), the motel owner, tries to step in and save her guests from being carted away, but she is no match for the nefarious force. The real purpose of the raid is quickly revealed: Teddy (Mark Burnham), a small-time crime boss and owner of a local fast food restaurant, is killing and prostituting undocumented workers in a subterranean lair beneath the restaurant, and then selling the harvested organs to desperate families who have no other options.
By introducing its least likable characters in the film’s bloody opening sequence, “Lowlife” starts out on shaky ground. The brutal disregard for human life is made all the more evident by the violence shoveled out against women. The audience can hear — but never sees — the men being killed, but are instead treated to the ogling of a young, beautiful girl, who is then designated for sexual slavery, while and an older woman is ruthlessly executed and carved open like a slab of meat.
But while the scenes are unsettling, they also prove to audiences that the film will pull no punches when it comes to its more violent notions. It soon becomes clear that Teddy is a dangerous man, capable of literally hollowing out a human being, and that he employs shady and morally ambiguous characters who will abuse their power to fulfill his needs. Anyone who crosses Teddy’s path is in danger, and as it turns out, plenty of people soon will.
The following three sequences in “Lowlife” — “Monsters,” “Fiends,” and “Thugs” — introduce us to the main players whose stories will interweave and finally come together for the final sequence, “Criminals.” The first vignette, “Monsters” opens with a monologue in Spanish spoken by El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), a Mexican wrestler burdened by the legacy passed down to him by his father, who became a Mexican folk hero, prayed to by many of the characters in plight in the film. El Monstruo speaks of being disgraced in his career, and it soon becomes evident that he’s prone to blackout rages, one stylistically accompanied by the sound cutting out, El Monstruo silently screaming like “Incredible Hulk,” and a quick cut to the aftermath, where disaster and lots of blood surround him.
El Monstruo works for Teddy as hired muscle, escorting seedy men to the basement of the restaurant where they can pay for a chance to rape the imprisoned girl taken in the ICE raid — the same girl who has prayed to El Monstruo to save her, but of course, he cannot. He tries to counteract his guilt by focusing on the things Jefe Teddy has given him, a “beautiful” (but in reality, quite shabby) house, and his wife, Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), Teddy’s adopted daughter who is pregnant with their first child, a son who will carry on the El Monstruo legacy.
As it turns out, Kaylee is Crystal’s biological daughter, and she was given up for adoption (or most likely given to Teddy in return for drug money) due to Crystal’s drug habit. Crystal has turned to Teddy for a kidney for her ailing, alcoholic husband, and Teddy has revealed that Kaylee is willing to donate an organ to her biological father. Or so he says. Although her husband has already given up hope and is prepared to die, Crystal refuses to let go. But she also doesn’t trust Teddy, which leads her to secretly leads her to Kaylee’s home, where she witnesses her daughter being kidnapped by two men. Distraught, she returns to the motel and turns a shotgun on a man whom she overhears speaking her daughter’s name over the phone: El Monstruo.
From here, we kick back in time for the third segment, “Thugs,” which follows Teddy’s accountant, Keith (Shaye Ogbonna), who is picking up his childhood friend, Randy (Jon Oswald), from prison, where he served eleven years for a crime that Keith committed. It’s here that the film’s sly sense of humor kicks into high gear, as Randy, a lanky white dude in a track suit who talks like a white rapper, greets his black friend with a giant swastika tattooed across his face. Randy is oblivious to the effect, and instead pines for Compton and waxes poetically about a home cooked meal of chitlins and rice.
Soon, all three stories and characters come together in one final showdown with Teddy that ends in a bloodbath, with unlikely heroes stepping up to save the day.
The legacy of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” looms the largest over “Lowlife,” with its flair for unexpected, quick violence, and interweaving vignettes. But there is also a touch of David Lynch in the film’s unflinching exposure of America’s seedy underbelly. California might be the land of sunshine, celebrity smiles, and Hollywood dreams, but it is also home to drugs, poverty, and gated homes that are armored against gun violence.
Perhaps what “Lowlife” does best is expose the underbelly of an America that has always existed, but one that will certainly grow more dangerous and cutthroat under a presidency that continually fans the flames of anti-immigration sentiments and threatens to strip even the most basic healthcare from struggling communities who need it most. While organ harvesting has long been a favorite of horror movies and urban legend, it’s not a far stretch to imagine the black market stepping in to fill a void, as it has certainly done in the past, especially when human lives are devalued based on their ethnicity and immigration status.
And while the special effects can be lacking at times and the acting occasionally stilted, this is where “Lowlife” — and the horror genre as whole — shines the most: slipping in commentary about the neighborhoods many avoid in between a barrage of blood and bullets. There is even a glimmer of hope in to be found in the film’s grim and blood-soaked ending: a reminder that even the downtrodden can muster unfathomable courage and overcome an evil that seems unbeatable and everywhere at once.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and we are living in increasingly desperate times.
“Lowlife” premiered at Fantasia Fest this week.