Low Life first published by Dirty Movies
“Is your name Benny Jansen? We went to high school together.”
For his Youtube channel Creep Dunk, Benny (Wes Dunlap) is a calculating catfish, posing online as underage girls to lure, entrap and expose local would-be paedophiles, and posting footage of the final, revelatory meeting online. Yet in the opening sequence of director Tyler Michael James’ feature debut Low Life, as he approaches Tim (Anthony Sorrells) – who is expecting to meet 13-year-old Julia – for a rendez-vous in a parking lot, Benny is visibly taken aback when this man, over whom he imagines he is about to exert humiliating power with his gotcha moment, in fact remembers him from a shared past. Maybe it is the recognition, maybe it is the reminder of his old high school days, or maybe it is the way that Tim tries to run him down with his car, but something about this encounter causes Benny to buy a handgun for protection, and to delete rather than publish his video of Tim. As a person who sees himself – and who likes to be seen – as an alpha male and a winner, Benny does not like to be in any way challenged, let alone beaten, at his own game.
Benny imagines himself the hero of his narrative, even though it is clear that the sheriff condemns his vigilante behaviour, and regards the ‘evidence’ showcased on Creep Dunk as largely inadmissible in court and therefore unhelpful. With both the police and a past victim closing in and hoping to shut him down, Benny knows that he is running out of both time and opportunity to draw in his latest target, the maths teacher and family man Jason (Lucas Neff). So on a desperate and slightly drunken whim while at home playing poker with his friends Sam (Jake Dvorsky) and Ryan (Hunter Milano), Benny invites Jason over, and having pretended in webchats with Jason to be schoolgirl Lizzie, he now pretends to be Lizzie’s stepbrother. Over this game of bluff, Benny tries to coax a confession from Jason, even as his own cocky bluster and hyper-competitiveness start to get the better of him.
What starts out like the honey trap of David Slade’s Hard Candy (2005) ends up more like the moral clusterfuck of Peter Berg’s Very Bad Things (1998), as events on this night spin out of control, and ultimately it is Benny whose creepiness is exposed. The signs are there from the start. It is not just his aggressive need to dominate others and the insecurity that this barely masks, but also, in his pursuit of sexual predators, the predatory behaviours that he himself exhibits. And while Benny’s quarry – men who desire sex with children, and move furthermore to act on such desires – are completely beyond the pale, Benny has his own improper (if not quite sexual) relationship with his number one fan, the 16-year-old schoolgirl Nicole (Lucy Urbano), who first directed his attention to Jason, father of her best friend Megan (Luna Monana), and who even provides a nude photo of herself to help in the seduction (even if it is not entirely clear whom she is really trying to seduce). Here lines are not just being crossed, but erased (like the video of Tim).
“You’re like fucking Batman,” Nicole tells Benny, “Let me be your Robin.” It is an uncomfortably wrong pairing that comes closer to Frank and Libby from James Gunn’s Super (2010), or even Big Daddy and Hit-Girl from Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (2010) in its inappropriateness, irresponsibility and openness to abuse. It will not be long before Benny is speculating that “it would have been a lot better for everyone” if Batman, instead of just endlessly battling his arch nemesis and sending him back to Arkham Asylum, had transgressed “his moral code or whatever” and “just went ahead and killed the Joker, like the first time he had the chance.” This is the moment where Benny reveals himself for who he really is, beneath all the posturings of indignation and righteousness. By the end, hero is hard to distinguish from villain, and hunter from prey, as Benny races not so much to uncover the crimes of others as to cover up his own, and proves as much a low life as those he ensnares.
strap: In Tyler Michael James’ uneasy vigilante psychodrama, a catfishing podcaster who ensnares paedophiles in honey traps also exposes himself