As a film about time, The Five Rules Of Success aptly opens with a man who has been doing it. In a single, fluid shot, we track a character (Santiago Segura) listed only as X in the credits, although eventually named Chino in the film, as he paces his prison cell before being summoned out, cuffed, walked through the prison, uncuffed, handed a box of his belongings, and escorted by a guard out into the glaring light beyond the building’s interior. In subsequent shots, as the camera follows him through and out the prison’s front gate, we see a second guard escorting a second prisoner on his way in through the same gate. The significance of this momentary encounter is clearly that prison is a revolving door – a point underlined by Chino’s parole officer Emma (Isidora Goreshter) who points to the two file boxes in her office, with the words: “This box has dead people in it. This box has people I sent back to prison. Which box do you want to be in?”
Such binary choices dominate writer/director/cinematographer Orson Oblowitz‘s feature, as our extremely disciplined ex-con on the up must choose between between a ‘fancy’ quartz watch or an automatic wristwatch that ‘puts you in control’, between right and wrong action, and between slow and fast routes towards success in the catering business. Although living in an apartment that is very similar to his prison cell, Chino’s ambitions know no bounds. Near the beginning, as he watches Trump delivering a Presidential speech on television, Chino imagines (and we see) himself on the podium, lip-synching to Trump’s audio. It is a striking mismatch of sound and image that exposes both the extent and the absurdity of this young Latino’s aspirations. Starting with nothing, at first Chino lives like a monk – no drinking, no drugs, no sex, no illegal activity – and builds his way up from the bottom with hard work, incredible drive and five motivational rules which give the film its title and the narrative its formal quinquepartite structure. Those principles, combining self-help, positivity and rugged individualism, encapsulate the American dream – which the rest of the film deconstructs step by step in a country where nothing and no one is equal, and crime does pay
Chino gets a job as delivery boy for Avakian (Jon Sklaroff), a kindly if stern man who has over decades grown his Greek restaurant from the ground, and who for a time becomes a father figure to Chino as much as Emma is a mother figure – Chino’s real parents having died years earlier in circumstances which led directly to his incarceration while still a boy. Yet even as Avakian offers Chino guidance in walking the straight and narrow, Chino is impatient to open his own restaurant (“You and me, we’ve got a very different idea of time”, he tells his boss), and soon is helping out Avakian’s feckless real son Danny (Jonathan Howard) in criminal enterprises for fast cash. “Dreams are expensive these days,” Danny tells him – and as Chino’s dream gets closer, he takes on ever more morally questionable jobs on the side, triggering memories of his own traumatic past.
The Five Rules of Success is a story of simultaneous ascent and descent, as its hero struggles to make his own way through a system that perpetually precludes and penalises those who have served their time and paid their dues. Chino is pursuing a path to success in which eventually all his harrowing experiences inside will be transformed into an entertainingly gimmicky evening for paying customers (in an uncomfortable reflection of what Oblowitz’s film too is doing for the touristic viewer rubbernecking on Chino’s life). This is all at once a hallucinatory anatomisation of capitalism in the United States, where the money that talks and opens doors is always ‘filthy’ – and an ugly, tragic portrait of a Trumpian nation in its death throes, exposing the manifest destiny of America’s excluded underclass as a record stuck in a looping groove, or at best as a mechanical watch that will keep telling the right time only so long as its owner, stymied and suffocated on all sides, is able to remain in motion. Yet at the same time, those immigrants, illegals and ex-cons who have so often of late been dismissed and dehumanised in political discourse and the media are here rehumanised, and have their tales retold as more than mere marginalia in an ever-unfolding story of America.
strap: In Orson Oblowitz’s The Five Rules Of Success, an ambitious ex-con finds his business model for the American dream falling short
© Anton Bitel