X has just been released from prison, and is determined to make his re-entry to society mean something. The Five Rules of Success, directed and written by Orson Oblowitz is an often bloody and blazing crime thriller, but it also interrogates our system of punishment and (in)justice — beginning with a lengthy tracking shot following our protagonist walking out of prison and feeling like he is walking out of hell.
Or maybe instead he is entering purgatory. For X (whose name is even suggestive of the “ex-con”) the permanent stigma he now wears feels like a life sentence, especially when he has no money, no support system, and no one to rely on but himself.
Getting out doesn’t get him “in” with the life he dreams of — and he faces roll-call strict probation rule and abusive parole officer that leaves him with few options and few kindnesses from the world. X (Santiago Segura) remains mostly an enigma to audiences as his story progresses, but Segura is magnetic in his rendering of X’s unwavering fight against the oppressive forces making life nearly impossible for the formerly incarcerated.
As he spends time with bad-influence Danny (Jonathan Howard) wandering through the neon-lit underbelly of Los Angeles, he tries to push any drugs or traces of criminality away. X is intense and practically self-punishing as he pushes himself to his physical and mental limits, giving himself pep-talks and blunt reminders that he owns nothing and has no real control over his role in society. He lifts weights and builds up his body, and frantically scribbles down rules like “aim high,” “block all negativity,” “manifest goals into reality,” “prioritize health,” and maybe most significantly, “never rely on anyone or anything.”
The colors are ultra-saturated and the outbursts of violence ultra-gruesome, and the audience is punished along with the characters as we witness spectacles of suffering. Despite X’s best efforts to leave crime behind, flashes of intense violence frequently intrude onto the screen, like horrific images of people sobbing and begging for their lives or screaming wordlessly as they are suffocated with plastic bags. Oblowitz, who also served as cinematographer and co-wrote the script, drew stylistic inspiration from subversive Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono. In particular, he draws upon Sono’s 2005 film Hazard, a tale of restless youth fighting back against crime- and corruption-riddled society, in creating his own indictment of a deeply hypocritical system of power. X keeps trying to outrun twisted terrors, but keeps getting sucked back into awful scenes of attacks and intentionally-inflicted pain that replay in his mind and all around him.
X’s quest for redemption is compelling to follow, even as some of the scenes of cruelty and eruptions of anger can feel intended mostly for shock value. The moody cinematography perfectly captures the seedy atmosphere, while jittery editing elsewhere helps reflect psychological trauma. But while this film is certainly gut-punching and punishing, it is perhaps most interesting simply due to the potentially incendiary questions it raises about prison’s costs and the soul-crushing inequalities frequently wrought by the system,
Oblowitz attracted attention for his prior features like the home-invasion nightmare-scape Hell is Where the Home Is, and this film takes on a new type of horror close to home in its attack of injustice. Pursuing the American dream isn’t so easy, especially if you have spent time behind bars — and especially in a contemporary climate where those in power often do not seem to care about truly helping or rehabilitating those convicted of crimes. Though The Five Rules of Success could perhaps push its political provocations even further, it feels timely in its investigation against the carceral system. Whether or not it follows its own rules to do so, this film can be certified as a success.