Ryan Prows’ Lowlife is a true-to-form sonofabitch. From frame one, the film smacks of Tarantino hoodishness – but sustainability is key. A larger story is divided into chapters, as Prows navigates this messy grey zone where “decent” people merely hope to survive. Lives collide, all connected by a single taco-slinging underworld boss. There’s vibrant character work and a surprising fluidity in jagged narration, but one segment remains the ugly ducking of this cartoonish Barrio calamity. That’s the only thing bogging down Prows’ big-picture vision, and even at that, remaining cinematics do all the talking.
The fun of Lowlife is experiencing scenes as they come at you, so I’ll be brief and spoiler-free. Necessary information is that Teddy “Bear” Haynes (Mark Burnham) is an asshole you don’t want to mess with. El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate) swears allegiance to his “Jefe,” but finds himself betrayed by pregnant wife/Teddy’s adopted daughter Kaylee (Santana Dempsey). At the same time, motel owner Crystal (Nicki Micheaux) works a deal with Teddy that grants her alcoholic husband Dan (King Orba) a new kidney – only it’s coming from the daughter she once sold away (also Kaylee). Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) and Randy (Jon Oswald) are the thugs hired to kidnap Kaylee – Keith is Teddy’s embezzling accountant, Randy his swastika-face-tattooed buddy – who find themselves debating a change of heart. The trio seek refuge at Crystal’s motel where El Monstruo is already waiting for Teddy, and that’s when the real fun begins.
Take a breath, relax and catch up. You with me? Good.
The most impressive aspect of Lowlife is how Prows connects each act, defined by a different underbelly moniker. “Lowlife” rightfully teases Teddy’s introduction, “Monsters” respects the legend of El Monstruo, “Fiends” dives into Crystal’s black-market agreement, “Thugs” deals with Kaylee’s kidnapping and “Criminals” unites the whole lot of weirdos. Separate narratives all come together in a car-crash of prostitution, family sacrifice and honor by redemption. Pulp Fiction is still the gold-standard as far as nonlinear storytelling goes, but Prows shows skill in ending each segment on an ambiguous cliffhanger that’s always resolved. An errant gunshot without a landing, a cocked shotgun, things of this nature. Nothing seismic, but it’s enough to keep us wondering how the next chapter will link.
I’m telling you right now that “Thugs” will be your favorite stretch. Shaye Ogbonna and Jon Oswald are no-argument standouts in Lowlife (aside from Mark Burnham’s screen domination as vile cockroach Teddy).
Ogbonna plays this African American accountant who’s backed into a corner, aka the straight man (with a mean streak). Oswald’s Wonderbread-ass gringo exits prison with a gigantic swastika tattooed on his face. First reactions are uncomfortable and dumbfounding, until Oswald launches into his Malibu’s Most Wanted meets 8 Mile schtick and somehow makes the obscenity work.
His face reads confused disgust, which Oswald combats by explaining that prison is just one big race war. The tattoo meant survival (not an excuse mind you, but Prows somehow pulls off the woke-defying stunt). Plus it gives Oswald the chance to deliver crowd-slaying lines like “Not cool bro, you don’t know my struggle” after being negged for his Nazi artwork. While surrounded by immigrants and minorities, mind you. Making a “Mein Kampf” reference. Pretty fearless commentary for a directorial debut.
The chemistry between Ogbonna and Oswald is dynamic, comical and racially hilarious. This is why “Thugs” marks a huge uptick in momentum after a slower, burdensome “Fiends” segment. Where a mother is willing to buy her daughter’s kidney in order to save her Edward-Forty-Hands-playing husband. Nicki Micheaux delivers one of the weaker on-camera presences, forced to emote from a shallow husk of soullessness. Her *obviously* poor decision makes for an unsympathetic arc (I know, the movie is called Lowlife), but it’s a stark down-note compared to more lively bookends in “Monsters” and “Thugs.”
Speaking of, “Monsters” could have been a movie on its own. Hollywood needs more masked Mexican street “heroes” who wear powder-blue suits, and El Monstruo’s legacy is a point of praise.
As Ricardo Adam Zarate sits in a plastic lawn chair, telling a princessy-pink teen the story of El Monstruo on her quinceanera, we’re properly tuned into the zaniness Lowlife has no problem embracing. This is right after we’ve watched Teddy hack up an illegal’s corpse for organs. Shifting from gore to a humble Luchador’s storied history, whose black-out rage moments hide action only for a greater reveal. We hear a high-frequency ring, El Monstruo hulks out, fade to black, he comes to and there’s always something new next to his body. Trashed living room furniture. A dead body. A severed hand holding a gun. Do we miss the actual fight? Sure, which only makes it even funnier when a detached hand is laying next to El Monstruo with no explanation.
Then there’s “Criminals,” the through-line splattered with blood. A motel clerk, an Aryan brotherhood dropout and an urban tall tale walk into a food joint that doubles as a body chophouse/underage sex club – tell me if you’ve heard this one. Haven’t you? Of course not. Prows may not hit all the dramatic beats intended, but Lowlife will do more than please the midnight crowd. Practical effects leave a pile of caved-in skulls soaking in fake blood while a winding plot traverses the slimiest undercrust of forgotten cityscapes. All that and Prows still manages to interject some political satire, making corrupt ICE agents into villains (immigration policy questioning) and denouncing the racial hatred of a man marked by antisemitic propaganda (hoping others will follow).
There’s a lot to like about Lowlife, as toxic as most of the motivations throughout each segment are. Director Ryan Prows rolls deep with a 4-man writing team, but maps a clear, singular vision that binds it all together. Nothing gets lost in the fold and completion is delivered, told like some Scarface-era drug dream. Half the film feels like a fake exploitation flick that other movie characters might be watching, and that’s meant as a compliment. Prows’ attitude is gonzo, guns-blazing unruliness, and his chops are up to task. It helps that most characters meet story expectations (one can’t stress enough how Teddy “Bear” Haynes would seamlessly fit into any Tarantino flick), but attitude plays an even bigger part. Let this immoral collision-course wash over you like a grimy bloodbath worth its weight in pulp, and be sure to have a shower running for afterward.
Lowlife is a dirt-nasty nonlinear debut for Ryan Prows, sewn together from vengeful, spite-driven tales of urban survival.