Heads up, thriller fans! I’ve got something that you might want to check out. Low Life is a tense thriller that situates itself directly in our modern digital era, while also playing on a classic cat and mouse premise. Director Tyler Michael James manages to blend a very modern style with more of a classic thriller approach, while tackling a tricky subject as the center of his film.
Benny Jansen (Wes Dunlap) is a streamer who makes videos of himself tracking down and exposing child sex predators. He poses as underaged girls online and waits for older men to strike up a conversation. Once the interactions reach a certain level and a meet-up is requested, he shows up and busts them on camera.
His current project was brought to him by a local teenager and fan of his channel named Nicole (Lucy Urbano) who suspects that her friend’s father is a predator. He sets up a profile, interacts through chat and slowly escalates the conversation. The subject in question is a high school teacher, which makes it all the more dismal. His usual process is being accelerated in this case because Nicole is pushing him to move quickly on her information. She is (rightfully) terrified about the idea of her friend continuing to live under the roof of a sexual predator.
So Benny takes some rather haphazard steps to move things along and winds up inviting the man to his own home, where he clumsily attempts to set his trap. What follows is a suspenseful (if a touch long) scene where two characters attempt to maintain their composure while never quite tipping their hands. Eventually, things come to a head and the whole thing begins to unravel, leaving Benny struggling to maintain control.
While the plot is a suspenseful one, the things that make this story the most interesting are the elements of character and backstory that are laid out over the course of the narrative. Though the work that Benny is doing is arguably important, his motivations remain cloudy. There are pieces of his past that influence not only his desire to unmask these predators, but have gone a long way toward defining who he is as a person.
Benny seems to be stuck in a phase of arrested development. He is brash, forceful and always a bit on edge. All qualities that make him a charismatic internet persona, but also make him kind of a douche in real life. The film is primarily a thriller, but it is really at its most interesting when it’s working as a character study. You’d be tempted to think that everything that Benny does and is all about the clicks. That the persona and internet fame are his sole driving force. But he is motivated by something deeper.
Given the subject matter, it would be easy for this film to edge over into exploitation territory (in the bad way), but it manages to stay on the safe side of the line. And a lot of that comes down to some of the smaller moments in the film. Cycles of abuse and manipulation influence the narrative in unexpected ways and are on full display here if you’re looking in the right place. It’s not just about catching predators, but also about the impact that these people have on their victims and the people that they leave in their wake. What at first feels like a well-intentioned but ultimately self-aggrandizing game slowly expands. We see that for Benny, it’s not just about the views but also about the work itself. He does what he does for reasons that he may not even fully understand himself, but those reasons are ingrained in his memory and continue to impact him to this day. And even as his world begins to crumble, they are the things that keep him moving forward.
Movie Score: 3.5/5