“The Five Rules of Success” reaches for the stars, swings for the fences, and shoots for the moon with its visual style.
Writer/director/cinematographer Orson Oblowitz has crafted a film that is always stunning to look at and involves the audience in its disturbing story through artful design and intense direction.
An ex-con (an extremely good Santiago Segura, referred to as only “X”) is making every attempt to go straight after he is released from prison. X has been in the judicial system since he was a child, and it will not be until the film’s end that the reason for this is revealed. But when it comes, it’s a supreme gut punch of emotion.
X meets a kindly restaurant owner (Jon Sklaroff, an actor more people should know about) who wants to help him get his groove back, takes him in and shows him the ropes.
X wants to own his own place and comes up with a five-point plan (hence the title) to reach his goal.
As any drama about a former convict trying to walk a straight line goes, he hits a dangerous wall. X is stuck with a hard-assed and unforgiving parole officer (Isidora Goreshter, making the crooked M. Emmett Walsh’s P.O. from Ulu Grosbard’s “Straight Time” look tame) and the task of having to watch over his new boss’s wayward son (Jason Howard) will jeopardize his chance at lasting freedom.
The odds are against him from the moment he steps out into his new freedom, as the outside world becomes more treacherous than his time inside the correctional system.
Oblowitz has some things to say about the modern criminal justice system and the reasons for the high recidivism rate amongst offenders, and he does so by making the film a punishing aural experience. He gets down to the gritty and grimy side of Los Angeles as X navigates his way through the seediness of the city and some of its people.
The director cleverly chops the film into five parts that link to X’s five-point plan, giving the film an urgency regarding his plight. Oblowitz’s structure helps the film succeed even when the narrative is in danger of slipping out of his hands, which it does from time to time.
The film instantly creates a tonal ambiance of psychological trauma and sustains its mood throughout thanks to the relentlessly ferocious camerawork from Oblowitz.
X gets through a gauntlet of despair and a society that stands against him. The penal system is stacked in a way that people fail. The outside world turns its back on anyone with a record. The streets aren’t safe for an ex-con.
For X, the dream of reaching success becomes the faint light at the end of a long and dark tunnel.
Watching X all but drown in the sea of incidents that put him in danger calls back to mind moments of Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and the more recent Safdie Brothers’ film “Good Time.” Films that show a character struggle are legion but this one is a standout due to its design and the director’s profound commitment to telling his story.
“The Five Rules of Success” is an involving and emotional ethereal nightmare of one man’s David and Goliath-sized quest for redemption in a world designed to be an enemy. Its potency comes hard and hits like a fist to the face.
This is one of the more interesting films of 2021.