'Lowlife' Review [2017 Fantasia Film Festival]

You would think that the art of mimicking Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction would have been perfected years ago, but here we are, 25 years after Quentin Tarantino burst onto the scene and reinvented crime drama with his iconic thriller (and followed it up two years later with one of the greatest films of all time), and indie filmmakers are still trying to recreate that magic. The latest entry into this subcategory of film is Lowlife (screened at the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival), the feature debut for director Ryan Prows and a motley crew of five writers, a movie which evokes many elements of the Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction formula, from an ensemble cast of larger than life characters, to nonlinear storytelling, to its fast-paced, jokey dialog.

The film follows several characters all connected through a crime boss Teddy (Mark Burnham) in a sordid area of what seems to be Los Angeles. A luchador, El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate) obsessed with the legacy of the mask inherited from his legendary father, plagued by his own violent tendencies and reduced to working as Teddy’s muscle. There’s Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), El Monstruo’s very pregnant wife and Teddy’s adoptive daughter, a former addict who gets caught up in Teddy’s schemes. There’s Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), Kaylee’s birth mother and the owner of a motel at the center of much of the action who makes a deal with Teddy which could put the daughter she’s never met in peril. And finally Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) and Randy (Jon Oswald), a former criminal turned shady accountant and a recently paroled ex-con who, despite efforts to reform themselves, wind up having to do a favour for the ruthless Teddy. All, in their own way, lowlifes, as the title may suggest, on their way to an intersecting path when Teddy goes a little too far.

Despite the instant comparisons this film will draw to Tarantino’s work in the early 90s, the filmmakers actually manage to put together a coherent and fairly entertaining film. There are some standouts among a cast of mostly unknowns and newcomers, the dialog is at time genuinely hilarious, the action well-paced and story well-plotted. There are also some abrupt tonal shifts throughout the movie that shouldn’t work as well as they do, as the film easily pounces between comedy, drama, and even at times a little gore. That being said, it feels like someone’s first feature film, and it’s very indie, but if those are hurdles you can overcome, Lowlife is a pretty good time at the movies.

Lowlife lives and dies by its performances, a particularly impressive feat considering you probably haven’t heard of anyone in the cast before. Nicki Micheaux has been in a bunch of things and delivers a solid performance ostensibly as the film’s lead, as Mark Burnham has one of those faces that you’ve likely seen in a bunch of films before, chewing the scenery as the film’s big bad. The standouts, however, have to be Ricardo Adam Zarate and Jon Oswald. Both appear to be newcomers to film, at least based on their IMDB pages. Both play characters encumbered by distracting facial accessories, for lack of a better term. Both burst through those encumbrances to deliver rousing performances that.

Zarate’s El Monstruo is especially compelling. The character carries much of the film in the early going, has long monologues to deliver in Spanish (whereas everyone else in the film mostly speaks English), and truly conveys the character’s obsession with his family’s legacy, balancing that with the fact that he’s a titular lowlife, that he’s lost the way of the luchador because of his violent tendancies and how he treats the people around him. Zarate balances these touching and serious moments with comedy incredibly well, and as you might imagine, he does it without ever showing most of his face.

Oswald’s Randy, on the other hand, bursts into the film more than halfway through the runtime with a fucking swastika tattooed on his face and immediately alters the tone of the film. What seems to be a movie about legacies and crime and a mother trying to save her daughter from a monster turns into a laugh riot with one ridiculous sight gag in a scene that’s very obviously inspired by the Jackson/Travolta dynamic in Pulp Fiction. Randy is picked up from prison by his old friend Keith, at which point they have a long conversation about what Keith’s been up to for the ten years his friend spent in prison. We find out why Randy has a swastika on his face (a question which Randy very earnestly answers by saying that you have no choice but to pick a side in prison, despite being oblivious to how that might play in the real world), and Oswald plays the whole thing perfectly, eventually making his tattoo figuratively disappear.

Overall, Lowlife can only be described as a fairly uneven feature debut for its crew, but one where the peaks are unusually and impressively high. It can also be appreciated that it doesn’t pretend not to borrow from Tarantino and other like-minded filmmakers, still doing enough to set itself apart as more than just an homage or a copy. It’s tighly written, mostly well-performed and pretty funny when it wants to be. Lowlife gets 7 luchador masks out of 10.