Action-packed and unforgettable Lowlife a highlight of the Calgary film fest

Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), the soft-spoken manager of a sleazy motel, sees an ICE agent (Jose Rosete) violently round up a roomful of “illegal immigrants” from one of her rooms, but something isn’t right. Legitimate agents don’t do this sort of thing alone, or in the middle of the night. She knows that the agent is crooked, and that these people are going to disappear. It would be so easy to do nothing, to just let it happen. Not her problem.

But this time, she speaks up; gently, but firmly. A gun is pointed at her, and she is ordered to get on her knees and stay there. She complies. Her tenants are taken away. There was nothing she could do.

Not this time, anyway.

The kidnapped “illegals” are now in the hands of Teddy Bear Haynes (Mark Burnham), a man who deals with sexual slavery, drug trafficking, abduction, and even organ harvesting. By the time the title Lowlife appears on screen, we know that the word is not being used the way we’ve so often heard it used; to belittle the poor, the desperate, and the most vulnerable members of society. This time, “Lowlife” refers to the predators who victimize these people.

We learn more about Crystal, and about several other, increasingly colourful characters, who know about Teddy’s doings. A luchador (Ricardo Adam Zarate) works as Teddy’s hired muscle, while clinging to the delusion that he is a hero. A pregnant heroin addict (Santana Dempsey) doesn’t realize she’s next in line to have her organs harvested. An ex-con (Jon Oswald) steps out of prison, not fully prepared for how the outside world is going to treat a guy with a huge swastika tattooed on his face. (The tattoo wasn’t his idea, and no, people really don’t respond well to it.)

The overlapping storylines are the kind of thing Pulp Fiction introduced us to, and are put to brilliant use here by first-time feature filmmaker Ryan Prows. Every character is fascinating, and every moment is spellbinding. The premise is outlandish, but played completely straight by a cast I’ve never seen before, but will never forget.

It’s not for everybody, but if you’re not the sort of filmgoer to be scared off by some really brutal violence, than Lowlife is one of the most exciting jolts of cinematic adrenaline to come along in years. It’s also much funnier than this review suggests, while simultaneously vibrating with sincerity.

Intense. Outrageous. Unforgettable.

Lowlife screens Friday, Sept. 29 at 10:00 p.m. at the Globe Cinema Downstairs, and Sunday, Oct. 1 at 12:30 p.m. at the Globe Cinema Upstairs as part of the Calgary International Film Festival. For tickets go to

John Tebbutt is the Video Vulture. He has been writing about obscure and ridiculous cinema since 1997. You can keep up with his nonsense on his websiteFacebook and Twitter. Check out the latest episode of his online series here.