[What The Fest?! 2018]: LOWLIFE Is A Violent Cathartic Purge

LOWLIFE is an official selection of the inaugural What The Fest?! Genre Film Festival at the IFC Center in New York City.

We need a new name for genre. You know genre, that undefinable “thing” that a specific set of film lovers seek out. And as the first generation of home video lovers, Blockbuster Kids, are now making films that have been relegated to VHS literal decades ago, we are seeing a boom in this undefinable genre of “Genre” in cinemas. But while Genre with a capital G can encapsulate everything from teenage noirs to luchadore revenge movies, what is it about this genre that keeps drawing us back in? It’s more than just our desire for the violent danse macabre that these films offer, the genre pushes us further into the lives of the uncomfortable. Seeking out stories that only exists on the extremities of life. We are constantly in search of the answer to “Who could possibly do something like that?” And by taking a ripped from the headlines sensational story, and applying a humanistic approach, we are treated to something wholly new and electrifying. Which is also a good description of Ryan Prows debut feature film, Lowlife.

Lowlife introduces us to El Monstruo, the champion of the downtrodden, through a spirited monologue framed almost like an illustration on traditional Mexican prayer candles. Much of El Monstruo’s story is told in this ever so slightly heightened way as to make him different, but not separate from the realities of modern day LA. El Monstruo is the levity to this reality which intersects with the lives of a motel clerk and her debilitatingly alcoholic husband, their daughter which they tragically gave away to a dangerous organ thieving creep. As the narrative twists, turns, and collides into each other El Monstruo must wrestle (pun intended) with his identity while Prows contrasts the theatrics of the El Santo/Blue Demon films he is inspired by with the brutally honest portrait of the modern downtrodden, namely sex trafficking and a myriad of other awful things we can only imagine a true monster is capable of. 

The problem I foresee this film facing is that while a lot happens in the first 45m, it doesn’t all really go anywhere, for better or worse. But this is the challenge you face with a narrative structure that relies on multiple intersecting stories, and its also what will make everyone give allusions to Quentin Tarantino and how popular he made that form in Pulp Fiction. But what sets Lowlife apart from a mere Tarantino clone is that audiences have forgotten that Tarantino’s work was originally all derivative of the films which inspired him. And here too Lowlife is drawing from those films, rather than from Tarantino himself. This distinction draws new life to what the director and crew have really made, which is a bold attempt at injecting an El Santo-esque character into the sad realities of everyone around Teddy Bear Haynes, a disturbing human trafficking organ thief using a taco shop as his front, played delightfully by Mark Burnham successfully channeling what far few do: Quentin Tarantino, the fascinating actor. As the characters in Lowlife ricochet erractidly around a cash-only motel where these character collide, the film detaches even from it’s own inspirations to go deeper and reflecting a modern day Shakespearean tragedy, with a final curtain of crimson red to boot. What have we taken away? I’m not sure, but to take an Aristotelian concept: this is cinema as a cathartic purge of ourselves, simply by experiencing these rarely spoken stories. 

These films encapsulate sides of life that are the off percentages, the kernels of truths that inspired the original tabloid headlines. A secret backroom of crazy organ thief’s, men who truly think they have a magical familial gift of destiny, the enablers of the far gone addict that leave you wondering “How far gone are you?” Thankfully, these narratives aren’t part of most of our shared realities, but they do happen. And because of that they deserve to have their stories told, be it for violent catharsis or simply as a cautionary tale. While many of these films historically have centered around a heteronormative white perspective, we are now getting a more diverse representation that simply illuminates the power of these fringe stories. Recently a writer posited that noir should be over, though the misleading headline blocked his clear point: it’s not the types of stories, it’s the people who are telling them. It’s not that film noir needs to go, it’s that maybe we don’t need another white narrative after 100 years in a row. With films like Lowlife, I have hope the next 100 years will start amending that imbalance in representation.

ReviewJacob Trussell