By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Nicki Micheaux, Ricardo Adam Zarate and Jon Oswald
Directed by Ryan Prows
Written by Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson, Shaye Ogbonna, Maxwell Michael Towson and Ryan Prows
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” Immanuel Kant once declared, “no straight thing was ever made.” It’s a piercing and elucidating judgment manifested powerfully in the deliciously deranged, brilliantly executed LOWLIFE—a film that at times appears almost fanatically preoccupied with proving the German philosopher had no real conception whatsoever of how twisted we corporeal twigs can truly be.
We’re talking about a tale populated and propelled forward by a cast of characters damn near flawless in their crookedness. They all orbit chaotically around Teddy “Bear” Haynes (Mark Burnham), a greasy, murderous crime boss who splits his time between sex trafficking, organ harvesting and managing a taco-stand front—a proud multitasker in the worst way imaginable—as fate slowly builds a sinister Rube Goldberg machine to smash them together in a catastrophic moment.
You’ve got El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), a luchador with a cool mask and heroic lineage, who nonetheless suffers from an inferiority complex, serious daddy issues and a habit of going into blackout rages and waking up amidst pure human carnage. There’s Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), the no-tell-motel owner struggling to ignore the frantic spinning of her inner moral compass as she attempts to secure a kidney for her dying husband. Randy (Jon Oswald) is an ex-con, hilarious in both his pretense and ignorance, who finds reintegrating into society can be tricky when you’ve got a gargantuan swastika face tattoo, as well as a BFF (Shaye Ogbonna) who has gone straight and married your boo while you were in the clink for a crime he committed.
Kayla (Santana Dempsey) is a pregnant heroin addict, yes, but before you judge, be aware she’s got Teddy Bear for a father, El Monstruo for a husband and roots that stretch far, far deeper into the insanity around her than she can comprehend. Finally, there is the virtual army of complicit bystanders—among whose ranks we, the audience, must count ourselves—who watch this all unfold and wonder what depravities and traumas their hesitation to reach out and get involved may have wrought.
If it is not yet clear from the preceding paragraphs, LOWLIFE covers an immense amount of thematic, tonal and emotional ground. It is, at turns, wild and simmering, affecting and harrowing, funny and brutal, ugly and beautiful, brutal and uplifting. Sometimes, in fact, it embodies several of these elements in a single episode via the adoption of a vignette-based storytelling technique that allows us to revisit pivotal occurrences from multiple points of view.
It is difficult to imagine a more auspicious feature-length debut for director Ryan Prows. Comparisons to Quentin Tarantino are, as readers have likely guessed (and advance reviews have confirmed), pretty much inevitable. And where such dots can be connected in LOWLIFE, the nod is completely favorable. The fact remains, however, that there is a lot more than PULP FICTION worship at play here. LOWLIFE is clever without being a slave to cleverness. It is referential without being a slave to allusion. It is, despite its extreme premises and bonkers outbursts, grounded and real.
LOWLIFE might scoop your consciousness up like some 50-foot-tall fantastical beast carting away a lumberjack in a forest of Kant’s crooked timber, but its essence is more subtle, invading your heart in a manner both heartrending and hope-inspiring.