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A strange mascot for a strange movie.

Lowlife is a couple years old now, but I missed it when it came out and was getting its share of buzz from some corners of the movie critic sphere. It’s a movie that I think is fairly off-putting at first but eventually becomes something not only interesting, but maybe overdue. See, after Grindhouse, it felt like there’d be a slew of films trying to capture some of that aesthetic and tone. I mean, there were some. Even some good ones, like the feature version of Hobo with a Shotgun. But they were rare and anyone hoping for a kind of revamping or update on the aesthetic has probably been mostly disappointed. Lowlife fulfills some of that exact potential.

One of the ways it does that is by playing against the shallow thrills and over the top cartoonishness that you’d expect from “this type” of movie. Even this movie itself, which invites you to think a lot less of it than it deserves. It pretend to be over the top when it’s really pretty grounded. It pretends its characters are cartoons when really they are well-drawn human beings. It’s pretty convincing about it, too. Like, I would forgive people who couldn’t quite follow the depth it eventually gains because it might seem kind of incongruous with the first third or so. That said, it’s exactly that depth which makes Lowlife a kick-ass movie.

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Along the way, friends are made.

Lowlife has a helpfully straightforward structure. With five writers, usually a bad sign, I think this is a movie where the writers worked as a team and helped each other with the three major segments and the two bookends. The movie definitely feels cohesively written and with a clear vision in mind. It doubles back on itself several times, adding context to things we’ve already seen. Stuff that seems like something out of a far more ridiculous movie. That added context not only redefines events and characters, it humanizes them. It also builds toward a kind of sociopolitical theme that I think is interesting and unexpected in a low budget crime movie.

These segments consistently show us characters that seem like total dogshit as people, only to pull back and reveal more about their situations and inner lives. This humanizes them to such an extent, and is so obviously the challenge that the writers and director Ryan Prows are making, that it becomes pretty clear that this is some kind of grindhouse style movie (mostly evinced by the gore, over the top characters, and shooting style) but reaching for something higher with its themes and characterizations.

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You wouldn’t think this guy was one of the more sympathetic characters, but he is.

One of those themes is the idea of who the real monsters are. Most of the main cast are at odds when we meet them, chasing each other around and fighting over the fate of Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), a pregnant woman who just wants out of her situation by any means necessary. Eventually, these people who could easily have killed or maimed each other wind up unlikely allies. The unlikeliest of allies, really. Why? Because Lowlife is arguing that the real monsters are the exploiters, who must have power to exploit those without.

The two really bad characters are Teddy (Mark Burnham) and Agent Fowler (Jose Rosete). Teddy is a seemingly low level criminal, but he’s got magnitudes of cavalier evil. Meanwhile, Fowler represents the corrupt state that is manipulated or controlled by men like Teddy. These guys, in other words, have power and can exploit the powerless as a result.

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Teddy is gleefully, happily evil.

The others are all bad people to one extent or another. All capable of harm. But the context the movie gives them shows that they are exploited and largely powerless outside of the moment-to-moment decisions that usually revolve around attempts to escape or mitigate their circumstances. This is a very smart way to show cycles of crime, poverty, and systemic impression while pretending to be telling a more typically glamorizing, even with layers of grit, crime yarn.

So by the end, Lowlife becomes a movie about exploited people seizing their power and rising up against their oppressors. Uniting across social barriers to do so. It’s not the kind of place you’d look for it, and certainly not a tone you’d associate with it, but it really is that kind of story. And I think it’s very intentional. The way the movie deliberately builds toward this stuff has a power of its own, with no “gotchya” trickery and no earnest message-delivery. It’s just getting there by showing you more than you expect to see, making it hard to look away (because the movie is honestly a lot of fun to watch) and making sure there’s a solid cast of characters to root for even if you miss the thematic stuff.

 

 

 

 

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