Terms designated for the dregs of society, those collectively deemed ne’er-do-wells, the refuse with nothing to offer a productive, functioning world; at least, in theory. In practice, they often cast a much wider net of applicability, and their use is rarely so cut and dry. We hear or read them casually tossed off all the time, in the news, on social media, in our day-to-day conversations, without much thought towards implication. Effective shorthand allowing for easy depersonalization and dismissal (it’s no coincidence they’re often loaded with racially-charged connotations), making it easy to refuse to see things from a different perspective.

They’re also the exact terms which appear as intertitles separating the narrative of Lowlife into four interrelated vignettes. There’s an oft-repeated adage that “appearances can be deceiving,” and this is arguably the mantra that keeps Lowlife, the directorial debut of writer/director Ryan Prows, running full-steam.

Lowlife follows the unhinged El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), a dim-witted, failed luchador prone to rage-fuelled blackouts, as he grapples with his failure to fulfill his family’s legacy as protector of the Mexican people. El Monstruo is manipulated into serving as enforcer to the unscrupulous Teddy Haynes (Mark Burnham), a shady criminal targeting the already vulnerable local Mexican population for depraved organ harvesting and sex trafficking schemes. El Monstruo’s wife, Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), a recovering drug addict and Teddy’s adopted daughter and former sex slave, is pregnant with the heir to the El Monstruo legacy, but she’s got a nagging feeling her life and her child’s future should be something more than what El Monstruo can provide.

There’s also the intersecting plot threads: motel owner Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), whose dying, alcoholic husband desperately needs a kidney that Teddy can provide through less-than-legitimate means, and a pair of petty criminals who have the misfortune of owing Teddy a favor: Keith (Shaye Ogbonna), Teddy’s former accountant who might have scammed him, and Keith’s old pal Randy (Jon Oswald), a convict out on parole whose face bears an unfortunate prison tattoo.

Make no mistake: Lowlife is an explosive, adrenaline-pumping genre exercise that delivers one merciless blow to the face after another and trades in humor so grimy you’ll have to shower for days to scrub the stain off. Every character makes despicable choices, which compound once their paths cross, and as the clock counts down, and they each plummet further into mayhem (driven on by composer Kreng’s suspense-laden score), it’s a race to see if anyone makes it out alive. There’s so much corruption and unforgiving carnage — more than one face gets pummeled into a mushy pulp — that the film not only earns its title with reprobate glee, it drags you down with it. To only dwell on these aspects, however, would mean getting hung up on surface presentation.

The opening sequence of Lowlife ­ — which features kidnapping, a brutal execution and the graphic plundering of a chest cavity — is a great showcase for the film’s practical effects team, going big on a small budget, and it’s the kind of grisly, lurid introduction to a criminal underworld that fits squarely at home in this type of pulpy crime romp. More significantly, however, it plays right into assumptions about appearances: from the moment it plunges us straight into Teddy’s basement hell, it seems like Lowlife is going to be a very specific kind of movie — and sure, it has shades of that kind of grueling genre excursion, but it aims for loftier goals and scores.

Because apart from being fun as hell, Lowlife does something urgent and refreshing: it centers the type of people who aren’t often afforded narrative focus in pulpy crime jaunts of this sort, those routinely relegated to victim or dimensionless thug, or some other meager space on the margins (cf. Brawl in Cell Block 99, another recent, well-regarded bone-crushing genre outing, which, while entertaining, features tired caricatures of Mexican people ground into dust by an avenging white protagonist). Here, Prows and his team of writers deliberately set up expectations of more of the same to meaningfully subvert them.

At the onset, the characters of Lowlife one by one appear to be filling the role of specific cultural stereotypes. A violent Mexican, a poor black woman and a white man with a swastika tattooed on his face walk into a motel — the joke practically writes itself. Some of the film’s humor, as well as its early establishing interactions, lean into these stereotypes and the built-in assumptions they bring with them, which make for some uncomfortable laugh-out-loud moments as well as some genuine tension. If Lowlife turned out to be nothing more than an irreverent crime romp sparing no one’s sensibilities, it might still have been a watchable, trashy bit of entertainment, but Prows and his team of writers don’t let themselves off the hook that easily. They establish the obvious only to get to what’s underneath, and that’s where the structure of the movie comes into play.

Lowlife commands attention not only with its unflinching, go-for-broke presentation of violence and sleaze, but also through its clever utilization of POV and its temporal flexibility. The structuring of the film as a four-part, vignette-style narrative with intersecting storylines is a risky gambit that could easily derail a film with convoluted twists and turns, but here the risk pays off, working in efficient service to both mood and characters. Plot threads and time overlap but never quite tread the same ground twice, so with every new segment, camera shifts perspective from character to character as we see a single scenario unfold from multiple points of view, and pretenses fall away, lending deeper and deeper insight into the decision-making and the emotional clockwork of each protagonist and how they deal with Teddy’s machinations. This shift in focus from segment to segment ramps up the tension bubbling under the surface as narrative gaps start filling in and plot threads converge into chaos, but it also grants the characters their own space and lenses real-world ills through their subjective perspective and experiences, grounding the conflict so it hits home.

Crystal’s motel — which serves as a central point in each of the film’s segments — provides home to many undocumented immigrants facing frequent hassle from Teddy, who exploits their fear of government raids to aid his heinous criminal operation. El Monstruo’s fits of rage, which come often and are heralded by an ominous, high-pitched hiss, cause him to black out, often at inopportune moments. These episodes — and in particular, their increasingly bizarre aftermath — provide some mischievous comic relief, but they also function as a devastatingly effective manifestation of the psychic pain wrought when marginalized people must make concessions to oppressive forces like Teddy and his ilk out of necessity for survival. Zarate is a revelation as El Monstruo, impressively shouldering the burden of balancing macho aggression, paternal tenderness and existential angst with a natural ease, and it’s in these moments of struggle where he’s most effective. He brings a crucial vulnerability to the character, a reminder that underneath the violent rage, El Monstruo is painfully human.

Similarly, a character like Randy could have easily been shoehorned-in comic relief, easy fodder for endless “is he or isn’t he” Nazi jokes, but Oswald imbues him with an easy warmth, and paired with intelligent scripting, his character arc veers into unexpected, affecting territory as a crucial player in the story. He and Ogbonna make an amusing comedic double-act, with their brotherly, jocular sniping and complicated history providing laughs and emotional heft in equal measure.

The major emotional through line of the film, however, comes via Dempsey and Micheaux as Kaylee and Crystal, two women who find themselves in dire situations, both forced to make tough decisions, and who by the end of the film realize they might be tethered by more than just their bad luck. These characters feel lived-in; Micheaux brings a world weariness and damn-it-all desperation to Crystal, a woman tired of being invisible, deceived and dumped on, and Dempsey makes herself fully emotionally available, by turns vulnerable and defiant, adding stirring depth to Kaylee’s struggle as addict-turned-expectant mother.

Nearly every character who populates Lowlife’s twisted world undergoes some sort of significant transformation, be it spiritually, emotionally, or otherwise over the course of the film; hardly anyone comes out of this the same person they were when they started, and that journey is hard-won. The only character who is relatively unchanged is Teddy, unrepentantly vile from beginning to miserable end. It works, though: he oozes skin-crawling sleaze, and he does it with style, the kind of villain people will love to hate for years to come. Burnham might not leave a literal trail of filth wherever he goes, but it practically seeps through the screen all the same. He’s also responsible for a lot of the film’s funnier moments, along with Oswald and Ogbonna, and that levity ensures his reprehensible cruelty does its job but never overstays its welcome. It’s a delicate tightrope act which Burnham walks with panache.

Ultimately, what’s most striking about Lowlife isn’t its low-budget ingenuity, ambitious plotting or its willingness to find humor in life’s darkest corners, though these qualities all play a significant role in what makes the movie compelling. More than anything else, what gives Lowlife its beating heart is its empathy; peel back the layers of grime and Lowlife is a deeply humanist film. It cares about its characters and doesn’t cheat its way to their redemption or weasel out of confronting the uglier aspects of their personalities. It faces this unpleasantness head-on, while still firmly asserting it’s possible to find hope in hopelessness. Lowlife provides a satisfying, complicated journey.

With this assured feature-length debut, Prows announces himself as a capable filmmaker concerned not only with bold, in-your-face filmmaking, but also stories that speak to our humanity, and that’s a quality sorely needed these days. Here’s to whatever he cooks up next.

See Lowlife now in theaters and on VOD and various digital platforms. For a list of screenings, click here.