Lowlife begins with an ICE agent abducting a family, delivering them to an underground hellhole, sending the youngest into forced prostitution and murdering the rest to harvest their organs. Believe it or not, it gets funnier from there.
That sounds like a joke, but it’s actually true, though the highs Lowlife later achieves won’t be enough to win back all audience members turned off by the hyper-violent and cruel opening scene. This is a film driven by its id to a detrimental extent. Tonally it’s all over the place, not just from one scene to the next, but entire performances are modulated for completely different types of films. When these elements clash, it can be cacophonous. In moments where it all comes together, Lowlife really shines.
After a clunky first act filled with setup, Lowlife settles into a structure in which we see one main event go down from four different perspectives one at a time, each offering more information as it goes along. It doesn't fully hit its groove until about halfway through as it takes a while for audiences to fully understand what kind of movie they’re dealing with. Because things are so tonally consistent early on, it’s hard to know the rules and boundaries of this weird world. I suspect rewatches will be kind to Lowlife.
Character is key to the film. Not all are successful. The film is nearly ruined by the cartoon performance turned in by Wrong Cops’ Mark Burnham as the villainous (and I mean really, really villainous) Teddy Haynes. Luckily this issue is outweighed by a trio of great characters.
The first has to be El Monstruo, a man born into a legacy of legendary warriors who finds himself unable to live up to the title and now has to make ends meet by working for the dregs of humanity. El Mostruo’s all about legacy and honor and tradition (think Worf), and while you never get to see his face, Ricardo Adam Zarate does an excellent job mining that character trope for all it’s worth.
As Mark Burnham plays his role like he’s auditioning for The Greasy Strangler 2, Nicki Micheaux gives an equally out of place straight dramatic performance of Crystal, a character whose plight is so exaggerated it almost sounds like a throwaway gag out of a Troma film, yet transforms into something moving in her hands. There is a surprisingly emotional conclusion to all this insanity and without Micheaux’s clear dedication that attempt would seem laughable.
Finally the film’s best and most surprising character, Jon Oswald’s Randy, a just-freed ex-con with a swastika tattooed on his face. That sounds pretty bad, but without spoiling anything, what the film does and where it takes this character will surprise you and likely form the cornerstone of how it starts winning you over.
Lowlife has five credited writers. While that’s usually a bad sign, that does not appear to be the case here. While things can be tonally chaotic, the tricks with chronology along with some great character setups and payoffs indicate a lot of thought went into this, even if a lot of that thought is preoccupied with the gutter.
This is a hard film, filled with an abundance of gore (particularly when it comes to destroying faces). It lost me at first, but I found myself more and more into it as it continued. What I initially took to be immature cruelty for its own sake ended up bringing a lot more entertainment than I anticipated, though still with that immature cruelty for its own sake. Lowlife isn’t for everybody, but what’s there isn’t as vapid as it may first appear.