Transgressive stories vary in their popularity, with transgressive fiction only occasionally being sought-after, and even then, often of poor quality. Whilst rare exceptions do exist, in the literary world most transgressive tales are mediocre. In cinema, however, the no-good deeds of questionable characters have always been accepted and often relished, with numerous successful films delving into the depths of depravity where these stories exist. Whilst some, particularly from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, may well garner awards and critical praise, making big numbers at the box office, others are straight-to-DVD fare that follow tried and tested formulas to deliver exactly what is expected in the lowest budget possible. Though Lowlife is a cheaply-made film, it is far from the bargain bin where many of its contemporaries find themselves, and the story it tells is engrossing and original, though gross and somewhat horrific.
The narrative is split into four chapters, each with a different central character, and the first three interconnected tales are drawn together in the fourth for the climax of the film. The main connection between all the strands is the titular lowlife played by Mark Burnham. Whilst he does not have the chops to hold his own against more charismatic villains from other films, here Burnham is strong as the central antagonist. He runs a brothel for underage girls that he keeps captive in an underground warehouse, and also deals in stolen organs on the black market which he surgically extracts from people he kidnaps and murders. It is through his nefarious activities that the other characters are linked.
The three convening storylines involve a selection of grotesque characters. The first is a luchador played by Ricardo Adam Zarate who is attempting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a defender of the downtrodden, who blacks out when he becomes angry and awakens in the aftermath of his own carnage, and is currently employed by Burnham’s lowlife as his henchman, much to the trouble of his own conscience. Next is Nicki Micheaux in a role as a recovering drug addict who runs a cheap motel with her partner, a man in need of a kidney transplant who is prepared to buy one illegally. The third revolves around Jon Oswald as a newly-released convict who has had a giant swastika tattooed on his face as means of gang affiliation to survive the rigours of prison life.
Lowlife is violent, and graphic in its violence. It is a film that revels in its horror, not as a horror film but as a film that is horrific. That is not necessarily a bad thing, as by presenting absolute amorality the narrative is able to shift and bring in a type of moral justice, though one included outside the law. There are rules here, but they are not the rules of everyday life.
The film credits five people with the script, and perhaps at times it does have a feel of being written by committee—if that committee were attempting to out-disgust other similar transgressive crime tales—yet it is also not a poorly-written script. The direction by Ryan Prows is clean and engaging, though lacking a certain seasoned flair. Lowlife has a rawness to it that is consistent with early films by directors who later go on to bigger and more successful things, but do so without the constraints of a studio system and continue to work independently. This is an unconfined film, in a sense, in that has been made for fun and not for profit. That is something worth applauding, and makes Lowlife a watchable and amusing experience.