Lowlife El Monstruo

Rarely does a film live up to its title as well as Lowlife. Equal parts absurd comedy and surrealist bloodbath, it’s a shocking and often-hilarious story of a bunch of derelicts told over a few days in Los Angeles.

You know you’re in for a rough time when the film starts with an apparent ICE agent bursting into a motel room in the dead of night and grabbing all the undocumented immigrants inside. The owner, Crystal (Nicki Micheaux) tries to stop them and almost gets shot for her efforts. The ICE agent takes them to the basement of one Teddy ‘Bear’ Haynes (Mark Burnham having a lot of fun with the role), the owner of a taco shop who has a far more nefarious business going on downstairs. A good-looking woman is separated from the men and you immediately know that something worse than deportation is about to happen. It does, although a survivor is happy when Teddy mentions El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), and believes that he’s someone who will save them.

But it turns out El Monstruo works for Teddy.

We are introduced to that luchador mask-clad legend, who is someone who has a lot to live up to. He never removes his mask, ever, since he’s the latest in a long line of El Monstruos, like his father and his father before him. But his forefathers were known as literal giants and spoken of as eight-foot-tall behemoths that cured sickness and fought for their Mexican people; this Monstruo is a runt, a normal-sized guy. That’s made it so that he’s had to fight harder to get everything he’s gotten, but he hasn’t made it unscathed. The fact that he’s currently working for Teddy and helping him along with his evil doings isn’t helping his issues with self esteem. Still, he does his job very well, even though he also has some severe emotional problems. Every once in a while, he gets angry and blacks out, only to wake up surrounded by destruction and/or severed limbs.

Meanwhile, in another vignette, low-level goon Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) is meeting up with an old friend of his, Randy (Jon Oswald), who is freshly released from jail. Randy has been in there for  a while and managed to get some new ink in jail that doesn’t look like it will jive well in his hometown of Compton – a big swastika right over his big white face. It definitely tests the limits of his black friend’s decency, especially as he has to drive around and be seen with him. This bumbling duo eventually gets conscripted into doing some dirty work for Teddy that Keith, who’s a dad and not half the criminal his Nazi symbol-adorned friend is, is not exactly comfortable with.

Their travels eventually intersect with Crystal, the motel owner. She’s a tough lady, but she’s got her own issues that she’s dealing with, most involving her daughter, who so happens to be the pregnant wife of El Monstruo. Yeah, it’s one of those films. It’s more than a little absurd that every single character you meet is so tied up in each other’s lives the way this is (Los Angeles isn’t that small, folks) but it makes the story feel smaller and more personal.

Lowlife Teddy

All of these characters eventually collide, as you knew they would, and mucha sangre is spilled. Lowlife was shot entirely with a handheld camera, ideal for its messed-up, confused story. It depicts a sun-drenched vision of the worst parts of Los Angeles, Pulp Fiction by way of Tangerine.

I make the Pulp Fiction connection with reluctance, but the title cards separating each separate vignette, combined with the way the film plays with its timeline – sometimes doubling back to show the same scene from the point of view of another character – forces the comparison. Immediately after Pulp Fiction was released, it felt like every damn director tried to recapture that feeling by making films about dirtbags making pop culture references. Nearly all of them utterly failed in that endeavour and people stopped trying after a while. But this is the first film I’ve seen in a long time that feels like it takes what made Pulp Fiction work (minus the pop culture references!) and does its own thing.

All of this is aided by Lowlife’s discordant soundtrack, a mash of electronic noise that jives beautifully with the unstable people on screen. When El Monstruo goes nuts and blacks out you, hear a metallic whine before everything goes black, which only adds to the black humor.

It’s certainly not going to be for everyone. Lowlife is unique and strange and can make you feel a bit dirty for watching it. At its darkest, it gets brutal and straight-up weird. But while these characters are awful, terrible human beings, you can’t help but love them and all they do. If El Monstruo doesn’t become a fan-favorite character after this, I would be incredibly surprised, as it’s hard not to fall for him even when he’s doing dumb things like crashing a girl’s quinceanera.

We all know L.A. is hell and this film just confirms it. The ending bloodbath is inevitable,  but it does offer some strange hope to the seemingly hopeless people of this world…the ones that survive it, at least.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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