“Lowlife” is not the movie you’d expect from a comedy collective making its first feature: While mordantly humorous, this tale of several lives fatefully intertwining in the dank underbelly of Los Angeles plays its violent, over-the-top events in pokerfaced fashion. Though the backtracking, overlapping episodic structure is reminiscent of “Pulp Fiction,” there’s none of the garrulous snark or fanboy winking Tarantino wannabes customarily indulge in. Instead, this team-written effort by L.A.-based crew Tomm Fondle (of which director Ryan Prows is a member) nicely calibrates a twisty course between straight crime melodrama and black comedy, one that has cult-following potential among adventurous genre fans.
The four chaptered narrative sections rewind to offer backstory, and replay specific action, from different perspectives, though there’s little to no actual repetition. The thing that unites virtually all protagonists is that they’re each eventually imperiled by ties to the ruthless Teddy “Bear” Haynes (Mark Burnham), a sleazy operator whose taco stand is a cover for all kinds of nasty business. At the start, one of his goons poses as an ICE agent to haul off several presumed illegals from a low-end motel. But instead of being processed for deportation, the terrified emigres discover they’ve landed in the hands of organ harvesters and sex traffickers.
Viewing this raid with dismay if incomplete understanding is motel proprietress Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), whose complicated history with Teddy now encompasses a deal to get her hapless alcoholic husband (King Orba) a kidney transplant. Under Teddy’s direct employ is the man known only as El Monstrous (Ricardo Adam Zarate), a reluctant strong-arm prone to blackout rages, and who has delusional blind faith in the mythology of the masked luchador wrestling-figure identity inherited from his father and grandfather. El Mounstrous’ fed-up wife is the very pregnant Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), Teddy’s adoptive daughter and a questionably recovered addict.
As these figures and others come into frequently mistaken, sometimes fatal conflict, the unforgiving Teddy lengthens his hit list, which soon includes his embezzling accountant Keith (Shaye Ogbonna). The most overtly comic figure here is Keith’s pal, Randy (Jon Oswald), newly released from prison: Randy has been away a long time — long enough to not quite grasp that the swastika he’s gotten tattooed all over his face might provide a slight hindrance to societal re-intregration. Yet he, like most of the characters here, proves to have some surprising hidden sides to a seemingly irredeemable personality.
Rape, abduction, drug abuse, murder, suicide and more dot this eventful ensemble piece, but Prows and company don’t simply play the often outrageous (and occasionally grisly) content for tasteless sensationalism, comic or otherwise. They treat it with an interesting, empathic yet slightly detached tone somewhere between the respectful and the droll. The result doesn’t downplay or trivialize horror but sees a certain cruel absurdism (as well as eventual justice) in the way things play out. A climax in the chamber of horrors beneath the taco stand ties these tangled strands into a bloody bow — one that allows more room for unironic redemption than you’d anticipate.
“Lowlife,” a term that might apply to Teddy, and/or to everyone else here, isn’t a knockout. But it is consistently unpredictable and confident in its offbeat effects. The performances are all strong, from Micheaux’s strongly sympathetic turn as the one relatively pure soul in this down-market moral morass, to the more flamboyant (but still disciplined) characters played by Zarate, Burnham and Oswald. The assembly is astute on all levels, with one smart choice being Belgian composer Kreng’s decision to provide a straight-suspense score, though some preexisting-track additions add antic notes.