Lowlife. 2017. Directed by Ryan Prows. Screenplay by Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson, Shaye Ogbonna, Ryan Prows, & Maxwell Michael Towson.
Starring Nicki Micheaux, Ricardo Adam Zarate, Jon Oswald, Shaye Ogbonna, Santana Dempsey, Mark Burnham, Jose Rosete, Jearnest Corchado, & Clayton Cardenas.
Not Rated. 96 minutes.
Now and then a movie so timely comes along that it’s hard to totally comprehend how it could be so prescient. Other times, a movie comes along that gauges exactly the climate of the sociopolitical times it’s easy to see how cinema’s become one of the most important storytelling tools human beings have with which to try and reconcile the horrors of reality.
Ryan Prows delivers Lowlife – a movie encompassing a prescience about where America’s been heading, and a gut check to those unaware of where American already is at this current, awful point in time. As ICE continues its reign of domestic terror in the United States there’s something unsettling and real about Prows’s movie, because whereas many won’t believe these types of things are actually happening, those in the racial line of fire – people of colour – know these are realities.
What Prows manages to do is present a multicultural view of those stuck suffering under the bourgeoisie class of America, and the hierarchy in which many of these people perpetually exist. Twisted up in one narrative are the stories of a man trying to honour his culture while simultaneously trying to survive being crushed by another one; a white guy who was forced to take racial sides while in jail or else perish and wound up forever marked because of it; a woman who runs a motel whose sick husband’s only option left was to commit suicide in lieu of being able to pay for treatment; and even more.
Lowlife is – for better, though usually for worse – an accurate vision of a Trump-era America, where everyone struggles, and the only ones living comfortable are those at the top of a seriously damaged, deliberately skewed food chain.
A large theme here is that of desperation contemporary American society for illegal immigrants, for those already citizens – how people are put into desperate situations, as well as how they then must do desperate things reaching to extreme lengths to get out of those situations, and the cyclical loop of desperation which ensues, a never ending system of desperate people moving from one horrible existential place to the next. But there’s also hope, even in the most bleak, most dark spaces of life. Sadly, it’s hope for an American Dream that no longer really exists, if it ever did in the first place.
Lowlife shows us the heart of corruption – a black market economy, that of Mexican bodies, either as corpses or as victims of sexual slavery, where people of colour are positioned as expendable, in a variety of ways, for capital gain. Not only is it the indstry built upon the flesh of women, the rape of young girls, it’s an industry comprised of death – the deaths of people considered as less valuable in order to extend/save the lives of those deemed as more valuable.
We also see how various parts of America tear people of other cultures away from themselves and their own culture. El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate) is perhaps the most relevant character in this sense. He struggles with what the El Monstruo mask used to mean v. what it means now under his mantle, as the legendary Monstruo was a hero of the downtrodden while he’s just another thug for hire, aiding white men in abusing and using his own people so he can make a living. Monstruo is particularly representative of how America’s many ills dilutes, damages, and robs culture, in that it decays cultural tradition and understanding down through generations.
“El Monstruo honour old ways”
Monstruo’s also symbolic of redemption, and whether it can be attained by everyone after everything they’ve done. Throughout the stories weaving together redemption is an element constantly at play, though it’s always tenuous if it’s actually attainable or if, sometimes, it’s too far out of reach. One big part of Lowlife is how Prows illustrates that being a piece of shit is an equal opportunity personality trait – no matter your colour, culture, religion, bad people come in all shapes, sizes, and sorts.
In the end, people from different backgrounds and cultures and races come together in order to combat the greater evils at play in American society, such as Teddy (Mark Burnham) in league with ICE, and so on. A significant scene involves El Monstruo and Randy (Jon Oswald), the ex-con with a swastika tattooed across his entire face. Randy is the only one who speaks to Monstruo both in Spanish and like a human being, resulting in the unlikely group teaming up to take on Teddy’s corrupt operation.
This convergence of people from all walks of life is ultimately the biggest statement Prows makes, in an attempt to show how, despite certain differences, America’s biggest strength is a multicultural nation in which such people come together to fight against corruption and injustice.
As I write this, ICE are separating parents from their children, tearing families apart all because of imaginary, man-made borders. Other Americans are calling the federal government on the human beings next to them, simply for not being a legal citizen. Only fitting Lowlife begins with a lone, rogue ICE agent, in the dead of night, making a mass arrest at a motel while also threatening the black woman running the place when she questions what he’s doing.
I challenge anyone to try offering up proof this movie isn’t spot on where America currently exists socially and politically. It’s impossible. Prows and Co. have captured the desperate essence of what it’s like to live in society without power while those with all the power only abuse it to the detriment of those beneath them.
Lowlives control the lives of others, at every echelon of society, whether it’s Teddy, the local lifelong MPs dragging their feet just to get a pension, Donald Trump, or otherwise. They bring out the worst qualities in others, the basest of actions and the ugliest of reactions, too. Lowlife shows all walks of life coming together in a Trumpian America to fight against the bigger evils.
If I had to state a thesis for this excellent movie, it’d be that we’re all more connected than we realise, and so, if we continue dividing – and not in terms of the fake division preached by people who support actual neo-Nazis and misogynists, et cetera – and we continue to resist seeing the shared humanity between us across the many walks of life, then those at the top of an ugly capitalist, nationalist food chain will continue eating, using, and discarding the powerless as they see fit. Worst comes to worst, if we all go down, at least we go down together, and even those of us seeking redemption can find it if we don’t let the lowlives win.