starring Santiago Segura, Jonathan Howard, Isidora Goreshter, Roger Guenveur Smith
written and directed by Orson Oblowitz
by Walter Chaw X (Santiago Segura) is just out of jail, looking for a fresh start and finding an "essential" entry-level job in the service industry in the employ of restaurant owner Avakian (Jon Skarloff) instead. He cleans up, shows up, refuses drink and drugs, and does his best to steer clear of the malign influence of Avakian's wayward kid, Danny (Jonathan Howard). Though he's successful for a while, the system is wired for him to fail. His parole officer (Isidora Goreshter) is corrupt and opportunistic, sure, yet the real problem facing X is that this culture promises happiness in the form of material acquisition and public adulation and nowhere else. So X wants more and goes about getting it the way he's been conditioned to: by any means necessary.
I love how hyphenate Orson Oblowitz has X bunking in a Spartan pad with what looks like a neon vagina as its only decoration. I don't say that flippantly--I think the design choice is brilliant: X is continuously in the process of reinventing himself, his new forms birthing as he makes a list of goals on a dry-erase board. He is in a constant state of emergence, and The Five Rules of Success paints that evolution not as a positive one, but as a painful, devastating one born of a lifetime of trauma. What lingers is the sense that people are devastated by the unattainable lie of the American Dream. X's chrysalis is this hovel and the catalyst for his transformation is his disappointment with what he sees of himself compared against what society sees of him.
X spirals. He gets seduced by the promise of fast money and loses sight of the small pleasures of doing those inconsequential, unnoticed things for himself that are healthy and kind. He loses his shit. He starts doing favours for bad folks and cruising with Danny on mysterious errands that end one night with a traumatizing event that allows us a glimpse into a lifetime of abuse and, worse, the lack of viable alternatives available to X for a way through the world. His name is a variable suggesting countless applications, of course, and I'm reminded of the Joan Fontaine character in Hitchcock's Rebecca, similarly unnamed and oft-dubbed "X" in film-studies circles. She, like X of The Five Rules of Success, is every oppressed person forced into a mold they instantly overflow. Rebecca's X contorts herself to conform; this film's X takes his ill-got gains and opens a stunt restaurant providing the prison experience for hipsters out for a night of misery tourism.
We are a carceral state, these United States of ours, and Oblowitz has something to say about the generations of human beings fed to its bottomless appetite. I liked his previous film, Hell Is Where the Home Is (renamed Trespassers somewhere along the way) quite a bit--for its craft, sure, but more for its worldview, in which all our safety-nets are illusory or failed, should they exist, and only the vicious survive. In The Five Rules of Success, Oblowitz offers something familiar in ways that feel fresh and vital. The father-figure saviour is revealed not as the grand beast, as he would be in so many of these pictures, but as a flawed man who is perhaps a better father to a stranger than he has been to his own son. The best friend/lunatic archetype is allowed complexity beyond plot device. Note that the Last Man Standing is not the Last Man you would expect, and how Oblowitz gives him a long take where he breaks down over what he's done. It's like that scene in "Deadwood" where Swearingen's golem, Dan, murders someone in a hideous feat of endurance, then sits on the edge of his bed and sobs. And the hero, X, is a hero not because he always does the right thing, but because we understand fully why he does wrong. Oblowitz is a poet of West Coast desperation. I'm excited for more. Programme: Underground