Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Orson Oblowitz got off to a bit of a rough start, but apparently the third time really is the charm for him, because his new crime thriller The Five Rules of Success is pretty brilliant. A riveting character drama under the guise of a gritty crime thriller, this film is wholly unexpected and hits in all the right ways.
The movie follows a recently-released ex-con who hopes to fight back against a system that wants to see him fail by living by a set of rules he designs to ensure his success. In a way, it’s an underdog story, but instead of trying to beat the odds to win, the protagonist has to beat the odds merely to get to the same level as everyone else, which makes the story both heartbreaking and compelling.
There’s a lot to be said here about the failures of the criminal justice system, and it’s a discussion that needs to be had. Although the script does play a bit into some common stereotypes (like a sexual tension between a parolee and the officer assigned to their case), other parts feel like they come from a place of sincere honesty and emotion.
Oblowitz makes the interesting choice of leaving the protagonist’s crime as an unspeakable wrong until heading into the third act, in which the true nature of his sin is revealed. The effect is an interesting turning of the tables, challenging all of the presuppositions the audience may have of the character.
Santiago Segura’s leading performance is excellent. A lot of ex-con characters are played in a way that is big and over-the-top, but Segura brings an undeniable subtlety to the role. The whole point of this film is to challenge how the audience perceives reformed criminals, and Segura’s nuanced performance adds a lot of layers to the character.
The movie is just over an hour and twenty minutes long, and it breezes by. Oblowitz creates a balance between the more intense moments and the uplifting ones, showing the unstable and unsafe reality in which so many ex-convicts are forced to live. It’s sad, and sometimes disgusting, but will not leave anyone unstirred.
Oblowitz also brings a very exciting visual style to the table, and that goes a long way in making the film more effective. Granted, those who are not a fan (or who are not able to handle) of strobe-heavy lighting styles with unorthodox use of color and aggressively synthetic scores definitely won’t be as impressed, but it heightens the anxiety quite well.
The Five Rules of Success is a very well-made and surprisingly effective blend of thrills and social commentary. It’s probably a bit too edgy and formally provocative to find wider audiences, but it demands to be seen nevertheless.
The Five Rules of Success screened as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which ran August 20-September 2.