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In 10 Words or LessThere's no loyalty amongst criminals
The MovieI found it interesting that while watching this film, Criterion announced their upcoming release of Michael Haneke's Funny Games, a film I have very little interest in revisiting thanks to the bleak nature of the plot and the overwhelming darkness into which it envelopes the viewer. Though nowhere near as dismal and upsetting as Funny Games, Ryan Prows' Lowlife is a similarly bleak film populated by bad people who seek to do bad things. I don't have much interest in revisiting Prows' film either, but it's at least bearable, once you get through the brutal first sequence, in which an ICE agent rounds up a group of migrants at a hotel run by Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), the film's moral core. The people are taken to an underground dungeon and "processed", at which point we meet Teddy Bear (Quentin Dupieux regular Mark Burnham), a soulless crime lord from which all the film's evil spills. He's involved with everything bad in this world, ruling with absolute brutality, backed by El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), a simple-minded, rage-fueled tank in a luchador mask, who believes himself to be a defender of the downtrodden, but is nothing more than a dumb weapon for Teddy to aim and fire.
From there, the film splits off into several character-focused chapters, each with title cards like "Monsters", "Thugs" and "Criminals". The film is non-linear, so we see actions happen, and then later see what led to those actions, and eventually all the threads and characters wind together for the final segment. This concept is handled pretty well, allowing you to make assumptions as to what's happening, only to later find out the truth, and that truth influences the character development. This is especially true for Randy (Jon Oswald), a small-time thug just released from a 10-year stay in prison, during which time he got a huge swastika tattooed across his entire face (which could be a problem for a guy who grew up in and is returning to a black community, alongside his longtime friend Keith [Shaye Ogbonna].) Perhaps more than anyone, the revealed backstory unfurled through the time jumps makes Randy into a sympathetic character, and allows for his arc over the course of the film.
As this is a film steeped in the worst crimes you could imagine, there is a sense of dread and discomfort in the air at all times, especially if Teddy is in the frame, as Burnham is the perfect heavy, able to express menace without saying a word. But the film has a strong streak of dark humor to it, which is part of what prevents the film from tipping over into the realm of the truly soul-crushing. Whether it's a character struggling with the little problems in life in the middle of a horrendous moment or the fact that one main character spends the entire film in a wrestling mask, there's at least some levity to break up all the heaviness. But when it's at its brutal peak, there's no hiding from the darkness.
Without trying to load up the film with a lot of visual gimmicks--outside of the low-key, well-crafted audio/video treatment of El Monstruo's rage blackouts--Prows tells the many stories well, mixing up in-the-moment free-held cameras with carefully-framed moments to pace the fim out well from a visual perspective, and lets the actions and dialogue do their thing. Oddly though, when everything should reach a crescendo, the film's pacing slows down, perhaps due to so many elements coming together, and needing to allow air for each to breathe. Either way, there's a noticeable dip in momentum when you'd expect the pedal to be to the floor. The film doesn't suffer heavily from this,
The DiscLowlife arrives on Blu-ray as a single=disc release, which is packaged in a standard-width, Blu-ray keepcase, held in a slipcover that repeats the cover art (which is two-sided, with alternate (better) art on the inside. The Blu-ray has a static menu with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the extras. Audio options include English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, while subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
The QualityFor a low-to-no budget feature, the movie has a ton of production value to it, including some really impressive effects work, removing a barrier to entry that might have kept viewers out of a film that visually looks a bit goofy (thanks to El Monstruo and Teddy.) The AVC-encoded, 2.39:1 transfer ensures that all that comes across on the screen, with a high level of fine detail, showing off all the gritty textures of the film, while the bright, well-saturated colors--where applicable--allows the more visually-striking elements to really have an impact. Large swaths of the film take place in darker areas and times, and the black levels handle this well, including moments where the shadows are intended to obscure, and they do so well. There are no obvious concerns in the image.
The audio in Lowlife isn't particularly bombastic (despite the odder elements, this is a somewhat grounded film) so the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track doesn't throw a lot of audio acrobatics at you, getting more mileage out of smaller details (the motion alarm on a doorway in one scene is particularly evocative, while a distant car alarm sounds strikingly real.) The surrounds do provide some atmospheric effects when the locale allows for them, but they aren't particularly obvious. Music is strong with some minor enhancement in the low-end, while dialogue is clear, delivered mainly in the center channel.
The ExtrasThe big extras arrive in the form of a pair of audio commentaries. In the first track, Prows is joined by cinematographer Benjamin Kitchens, as they focus on how they shot the film on all but no budget and the challenges they faced during the production. They also get into the details of the shoot, like lens and the shooting schedule, allowing you to understand the glamorous world of indie film, the work that needs to be done and the pitfalls to be avoided. Of particular interest for filmmakers looking to learn is a discussion of shooting in and around a moving car (and the dangers inherent in the effort.)
On the second track, Prows is accompanied by co-writers Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson and Shaye Oggona. Naturally, this commentary is focused on the structure of the film and the writing process, including the development of the story, talking about the changes that happened over the course of writing the film, and into the production. A bit more jovial than the first track--obviously influenced by having more people in the room--it still provides a good deal of insight into the film.
A quick Making-Of featurette (2:50) offers up interview clips with members of the cast and crew, as they talk about the origins of the film and the reasons for making it. This is more promo than retrospective, but it's good to hear from those involved.
There are a trio of short films, which share their titles with chapters from the film--Fiends (1:24), Thugs (7:00) and Monsters (2:21)--offering background to what's in the film, as you join Crystal and her husband at a doctor's office, see home video of Randy's last day of freedom before his prison sentence, and watch El Monstruo do his workout. Some explanation as to what these are all about would be nice, but they do add a little something to the film's characters, particularly Thugs, which shows where Randy and Keith were before the film.
The film's theatrical trailer (1:59) is available to watch, but is better avoided, as it gives away way too much.
The Bottom LineLowlife is a tough film to watch, thanks to the depressing subject matter and brutal characters, but there's no denying that it tells its story well and offers characters that are interesting enough to follow over the course of a movie. It's just a struggle to self-inflict such a nightmare scenario. The Blu-ray looks and sounds good and offers up interesting extras for anyone who wants to know more about low-budget filmmaking. If you enjoy films about the darker side of humanity, it's worth a look, but if you don't have a stomach for the evil in men's hearts, look elsewhere.
Reviewer's Bias*Loves: film school in a box
Likes: non-linear storytelling,dark comedy
Dislikes: crime dramas
Hates: bleak films
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.