REVIEW BY JIM LACZKOWSKI (VOICES & VISIONS)
After viewing a documentary containing clips of films by director Larry Cohen, it’s admittedly a tough act to follow when you’re at a film festival seeing all kinds of genre features that range from horror to action to pitch-black comedy. LOWLIFE is an attempt at the latter two in that list, which places it squarely in the Tarantino-esque category and sometimes it’s a welcome throwback. However, as someone who became burnt out on that type of approach around the release of TWO DAYS IN THE VALLEY, I must admit that LOWLIFE was more of an endurance test than adrenaline-pumping entertainment. Admittedly, there were some pleasures to be had despite my overall indifference.
Director Ryan Prows and the rest of his quintet of writers (Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson, Shaye Ogbonna, and Maxwell Michael Towson) provide a colorful piñata of monsters, fiends, thugs, and criminals. In other words, lowlives that want to put an end to Teddy Bear Haynes (Mark Burnham) an out-of-control pimp that masquerades as a black market organ wholesaler. They manage to kidnap illegals so they can be violated for sex or have their organs harvested. In comes our hero El Monstruo. His mission earns him the focus of one of four subtitled chapters—the first three of which occur concurrently before ending in the same rundown motel room that begins the fourth. (You can see the narrative playfulness in full effect as a tip of the hat to QT). Ruled by rage, El Monstruo falls into a fugue state marked by a high-pitch squeal when his blood boils over. It’s a rather compelling storytelling ploy allowing Prows to cut past the carnage for aftermaths that are often so shocking that you cannot help but laugh as a way to deal with the outburst of sporadic gore.
It’s definitely an easy go-to for anyone to simply write this off as a loud Grindhouse trifle. My response was mostly “been there, seen this before” but after awhile, I began to realize that Prows and company wanted to elevate the bleak action comedy into a higher art form. I can see this working for many. The dialogue is definitely sharp and most of the action is propelled by clever exchanges along with contextual time shifts. In other words, this isn’t just a case of style over substance, but the style and the substance left something to be desired overall. The theme of desperation among incredibly flawed criminals that eventually try to rediscover some semblance of morality along the way is admirable and there are intense, over-the-top moments that achieve dramatic merit at the same time.
In the end, LOWLIFE didn’t quite gel or come together cohesively as a story to really draw me in consistently. The tropes were familiar even if they are instilled in an environment where anything can happen so expect the unexpected. The end result is a bit of a mess, even if there are highlights among the interweaving vignettes of anguish accompanied by memorable punchlines. For many, this will be gleefully dark and charming in a way that does recall some of the joy I experienced with a film like FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, but the more I think about LOWLIFE, the more I feel that this isn’t Tarantino-light but more along the lines of Robert Rodriguez. If the MACHETE franchise had taken off, Ryan Prows would be an admirable replacement. Take that as you will. The best thing that can be said is that I'm eager to see where Prows goes from here. With the right script next time out of the gate, I am fairly certain his career will be one to follow.