'Lowlife': Fantasia Review

Courtesy of Fantasia Festival
A seriously nasty treat that owes much to early Tarantino.

Ryan Prows makes his feature debut after winning a Student Academy Award for the short 'Narcocorrido.'

The bloody, bizarro highlight of this year's Fantasia Film Festival, Ryan Prows' Lowlife lives up to its name and then some, spilling eccentric mayhem across several blocks of working-class Los Angeles and, among other unlikely things, eliciting sympathy for a man with a swastika tattoo covering his entire face. A captivating feature debut despite some missteps, it flashes back to a time when every other filmmaking newcomer wanted to be Quentin Tarantino; surprisingly, it does not provoke the weary eye-rolling that greeted so many of those films. Boutique distribs should pay attention as it begins its festival-circuit run.

Chief among the film's many debts to le cinema de QT is its time-hopping structure, in which several characters take turns being the movie's protagonist, a la Pulp Fiction, in chapters with titles like "Thugs" and "Monsters." Here, piecing things together is much less tricky, with each new chapter simply turning back the clock a bit. But the conceit does allow us to shift allegiances on occasion, letting one episode's villain become a struggling underdog a few scenes later.

No sympathy will be afforded, though, to Teddy (Mark Burnham, of Quentin Dupieux's Wrong and Wrong Cops). A slimeball human trafficker who, come to think of it, looks like he could be the black-sheep uncle of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction character, Teddy has dirty ICE agents kidnap Latino immigrants for him; some he forces into prostitution, some he chops up like cattle, selling their organs on the black market.

Teddy is the father-in-law of El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), a failed luchador whose father was a legend. Endearingly loyal to the family business ("The legacy is all!" he repeatedly insists), El M. lives his life in character and never removes his wrestling mask — though when Mexican-Americans recognize him as a hero, he admits that he's "not that Monstruo," and that he lacks the mountainous physique required to match Dad's feats of strength.

What this Monstruo does have, though, is volcanic rage. At moments of crisis, a tinnitus-like whine takes over the soundtrack, and both he and the film black out. When he regains consciousness, El Monstruo is likely to have somebody's ripped-off limb in his hand, or be lying beside a caved-in skull. Forced into working for Teddy as an enforcer, M. faces moments of crisis with troubling regularity.

The movie's other characters have almost all been forced into similar moral compromises, sometimes unwittingly. To go into much more detail would ruin some of the surprises in a script credited to Prows and four collaborators, but as sordid as things get, the picture contains just enough tension-deflating comic moments to be called fun. (Well, "fun" for moviegoers unfazed by over-the-top gore.) Bracing and well paced, it may occasionally stretch too far for an attention-getting quirk, but Lowlife feels fresher than it has any right to be, given its ingredients.

Production company: Lowlife, LLC
Cast: Mark Burnham, Santana Dempsey, Nicki Micheaux, Shaye Ogbonna, Jon Oswald, Ricardo Adam Zarate
Director: Ryan Prows
Screenwriters: Ryan Prows, Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson, Shaye Ogbonna, Maxwell Michael Towson
Producers: Tim Cairo, Derek Bishe, Narineh Hacopian
Executive producers: James Norrie, Robert Bevan, Cyril Megret, Ian Davies, Mark Foligno, Tor Bengtsson, Jake Gibson, Lauren Lillie
Director of photography: Benjamin Kitchens
Production designer: Callie Andreadis
Costume designer: Alicia Ast
Editors: Brett W. Bachman, Jarod Shannon
Composer: Kreng
Venue: Fantasia International Film Festival

In English and Spanish

95 minutes

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