We have seen Lucha Libre wrestlers heroically campy in the El Santo movies (courtesy of MST3K) and grotesquely depressing in Arturo Ripstein’s Bleak Streets, but never like this. Beneath El Monstruo’s crimson and gold mask, there is a heart of darkness and a deep abiding sense of shame. However, he might have a shot at redemption when the bodies start piling up in Ryan Prows’ Lowlife (trailer here), which screens during this year’s What the Fest!?, at the IFC Center.
El Monstruo did not merely inherit his legacy from his fearsome father. He had to fight for it, like all Monstruos before him. He was always under-sized compared to prior Monstruos, as well as his luchador rivals, but no man was a match for his explosive rage. Inevitably, this led to a tragic incident in the ring that tarnished his reputation and cashiered him out of the league. Now Monstruo works for Teddy “Bear” Haynes, a vile loan shark and human trafficker, guarding the very women who look to Monstruo to be a defender of the innocent.
At least he managed to save his wife, Kaylee, whose unborn son will guarantee the legacy endures. That was Monstruo’s plan, but Haynes now has other ideas. Crystal, Kaylee’s birth-mother is desperate for a kidney to save her husband, the father Kaylee never met. Haynes will happily offer up one of Kaylee’s. However, Crystal will have a change of heart when she realizes Kaylee is not a voluntary participant.
Into this brewing mess barges Keith and his old running mate Randy, freshly released from prison, with the facial swastika tattoo to prove it. Randy could have snitched on Keith, but he did the time instead. Yet, Keith intends to set-up his old friend to protect his newly respectable suburban life and payoff his debts to Haynes. However, Keith has gone soft and naïve, so he will need Randy’s street smarts to survive Haynes’ shocking criminal assignment.
On paper, Lowlife sounds like a film so dark and cynical it could inspire entire audiences to give up the will to live. Yet, somehow Prows keeps the energy cranked up to such a manic level, viewers essentially speed by, leaving many of the grimmer details unnoticed. The fractured Pulp Fiction-style narrative also works better here than in nearly every imitator in between. Yet, what really gives the film guts and cojones is the way it deconstructs the luchador archetype. A lot of people in the Lucha Libre world will probably hate this film, but in a bizarre way, it still gives us hope for humanity.
Even though he never takes off the mask, Ricardo Adam Zarate is a true force of nature, as El Monstruo. Likewise, Mark Burnham’s Haynes is so flamboyantly wicked, he makes a worthy grudge-match antagonist. However, Jon Oswald shockingly steals the third act as Randy, the unlikeliest anti-hero, with a combination of perfect comedic timing and ironic guilelessness.