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LOWLIFE is a Ridiculously Entertaining, Worthy Successor to PULP FICTION (Fantasia Review)

LOWLIFE is a Ridiculously Entertaining, Worthy Successor to PULP FICTION (Fantasia Review)

A black motel owner with a shotgun, a white dude with a swastika tattoo on his face, and a rage-filled luchador with a sledgehammer walk into a taco shack. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The motel owner is Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), who needs a kidney for her sick husband on top of all the ends she struggles to meet. The skinhead is Randy (Jon Oswald), who’s fresh from prison and only in this mess because his friend Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) stole money from the wrong guy. The masked man of Mexican legend is El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), who plays lap dog to the sleazy taco shop owner/sex slaver Teddy “Bear” Haynes (Mark Burnham). The weapons are self-explanatory.

Swimming through the same lower rungs of society as your classic pulp stories, Lowlife dives deep without needing to come up for air. Director Ryan Prows’ whimsically dark and fantastically entertaining film has emerged from left field to demand a place on your radar. Set up a Google alert for “Lowlife release date.” You’ll be glad you did.

Lowlife Teddy

The Pulp Fiction comparisons are obvious–the nonlinear storytelling, the criminal subject matter, the desperation–but Lowlife is its own animal, borrowing not so much from Quentin Tarantino’s explosive film, but from the lineage of films that Tarantino also cribbed from. It evokes Pulp Fiction without stepping on its toes because it shares only the surface level traits, not the style, characters, or substance.

That substance is a host of interconnected stories swimming around Teddy Oso’s Fish Tacos and the illegal prostitution ring he’s running down there. Teddy is a true villain, looking like Norm MacDonald and Jaws from the Bond films gave birth after drinking too much during the pregnancy, and driven solely by his next dollar. Burnham plays him to the hilt, grinning as he forces us to hate him. He’s a pawn shop Scarface who’s hotheaded and trigger-happy in his disgusting silk shirts.

His murderous mascot El Monstruo is a comic figure in a tragic world, claiming he’s the descendant of a long line of mythic protectors of Mexico, wishing perilously that he can live up to that responsibility and raise a son in the same heartless way that made him a fighter. El Monstruo blacks out when he goes into a rage, and Lowlife utilizes those gaps in consciousness to show the severity and occasional comedy of the aftermath with post-violent punchlines, and to connect us directly to the muscle-bound, masked POV.

Things really get cooking when El Monstruo’s pregnant wife (and Teddy’s adopted daughter) Kaylee (Santana Dempsey) runs away from home because El Monstruo won’t stop working for Teddy. Keith is hired to kidnap her as repayment to Teddy, he pulls Randy into the mix, and they all end up at Crystal’s motel.

Throughout its swirling stories, Lowlife does an impeccable job of teasing, pulling back, and delivering, whether it be violence, drama, or the intermittent moment of temporary joy. Happiness has a short life expectancy in this world, but the movie isn’t devoid of the little human reprieves that make it all enjoyably worthwhile. Although the Saw-like opening promises a grotesque drive through a bleak desert, the following scenes deliver a wide range of tones (from wry humor to breezy fun) that shouldn’t fit together, yet do. Perfectly. It’s a testament to the absurdity of surviving the low life that Lowlife can offer both incisive racial commentary and eye-widening, guilt trip violence.

Lowlife unleashes a rabid imagination on its characters, and watches as their responses sing. It’s as if the five writers (collectively known as Tomm Fondle) challenged themselves to twist every genre convention they came across while driving their characters into larger and larger piles of shit. It’s a phenomenal blend of familiar and fresh, and the mythology weaves back in on itself in unexpected, wondrous ways. Each chapter adds new layers onto the last.

Lowlife El Monstruo

The cast is strong, although not always up for the emotional depths the situations call for. Tearful scenes sometimes have a difficult time bouncing back from the B-movie resonance, but the empathy is still there, thanks to actors who make you care about people who aren’t obviously worthy. It’s hard to name an MVP because they all pull massive weights, but Oswald–tasked with being the Nazi-tatted Jiminy Cricket–earns a special mention for being consistently funny and thought-provoking. His character, Randy, is the prime example of the challenge the writers gave themselves: “Let’s make a swastika-faced ex-con into a hero” is at the top of the pile. The fact that they pulled it all off is what cements Lowlife as a soaring, dark comic success.

If the fear of being compared to Pulp Fiction eventually made the rip-off factory fizzle in the late ’90s, this movie, with its immaculate plotting and beautiful presentation, prove that it’s possible to play in the same sandbox without coming off as a weak fax copy of a singular hit. Lowlife is both a worthy successor to that tradition and an impressive original vision.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 laser removal burritos

4.5-burritos1

Images: Tomm Fondle

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