"Lowlife" is a gory, blood-soaked story of redemption, organ harvesting, a man with swastika tattooed on his face and one particularly rage-filled luchador. Filled with shifts in time and multiple narratives, the film owes a debt to "Pulp Fiction," with its abrupt moments of violence and seedy characters but manages to evoke a personality all its own. It's obvious that it's built from an expansive array of influences, but it never feels beholden to these influences, only strengthened by them. It's an unpredictable and grossly fascinating film whose tone is wildly erratic and uneven at times but is consistently engaging nonetheless. We really shouldn't care about most of these characters, but after some truly hellish circumstances, you actually begin to empathize with them. And that is nothing short of a minor miracle.
Directed with manic guidance from Ryan Prows, the film is a dirty, grimy and often conscienceless piece of art. Quickly introducing us to a corrupt ICE agent (played by Jose Rosete) who kidnaps immigrants for crime boss Teddy "Bear" Haynes (Mark Burnham) who peddles the young girls out as prostitutes and vivisects others for an organ harvesting operation he runs. By introducing us to these gruesome images early on, Prows does run the risk of alienating film-goers whose stomachs aren't quite as staunch as others, but the scenes play out fairly quickly, allowing to come to know these characters with an appropriate anger without wallowing in their heinous deeds (that comes later).
Quickly enough, we're in the company of Teddy's muscle, a masked luchador named El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), who is married to Teddy's adopted daughter and is blindly bound to the generational history of the "El Monstruo" legend. His father and grandfather were hulking men who wore the mask he currently dons, but his smaller frame is a point of embarrassment and frustration for this modern iteration of the iconic figure.
We're also privy to the desperate situation of motel owner Crystal (Nicki Micheaux) who has to deal with her alcoholic husband who is in dire need of a new kidney and the families of illegal immigrants who inhabit the rooms of her business. The last narrative string involved two friends, Randy and Keith, who reconnect after Randy (Jon Oswald) gets our of jail after serving 11 years for a crime that Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) committed. Randy emerges with a giant swastika tattooed on his face, oblivious to the problems he is about to face and who just wants to go home and eat some chitlins and rice.
With all these different characters running amok, it would have been easy for the film to completely fly off the rails and become a referential mess that tries to solve all of its problems with gallons of blood and viscera. But Prows and his writers -- 5 in all, including actor Ogbonna -- manage the herculean task of keeping everybody interesting, if unlikable, throughout the film. It does take a while for the movie to settle into a proper tonal groove; the first 20 minutes are all over the place, with pitch black humor sitting alongside terror and household drama to jarring effect. Eventually, however, all the pieces do come together, and "Lowlife" becomes a raucous and blood-stained phantasmagoria that explores the dark hell of Los Angeles' criminal underbelly.
These various story threads eventually collide in a number of violent ways, which are not always obvious and do manage to take you by surprise. That's a testament to Prows' actors and actresses, who are more than game to play around in this desolate landscape, and how well he frames the narratives that his writers have provided. You may come away feeling just a little bit dirtier than when you entered the theater, but there's no doubt that you'll be thinking about the film for days afterward. Feral, savage and strangely heartfelt at times, "Lowlife" is a difficult film to categorize and one that refuses to be bogged down by expectations. This is a film that must be experienced to truly appreciate its mesmerizing weirdness.