High Life cliched but fun crime caper

High Life is a breezy crime comedy well aware of its influences and unafraid to pay them tribute. The light tone of Canadian director Gary Yate’s film is set from the opening scene, with a clumsy street-side shootout and voiceover nod to Goodfellas: “For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer.”

The film combines incompetent-criminal comedies (Bottle Rocket, Snatch) and heists-gone-wrong capers (Heat, The Killing) with a touch of Trainspotting. The result is a familiar yet enjoyable ride, providing amusing banter and quick twists.

Set in the early ’80s, Timothy Olyphant plays Dick, a recently reformed criminal working as a hospital janitor. He reunites with former cellmate Bug (Stephen Eric McIntyre), and after a night of shooting morphine for old time’s sake, begins planning a big heist. Since ATMs are a new and fairly unregulated banking phenomenon, the two come up with a half-baked plan to exploit them. The ensuing third-act heist is thoroughly entertaining, with brief moments of suspense and plausible twists that stay true to the film’s tone.

Crime stories are not necessarily about the plot, as every scenario has been done before. What is important is the characters, their traits and vulnerabilities and where the story takes them. As such, High Life spends a great deal of time just sitting in on the four-man crew as they bicker and scheme. This is where character depth should be fleshed out, but at a quick 80 minutes, the film does not have time to get past their almost stock personalities.

Donnie (Joe Anderson) is the nervous, mousey figure, unhelpful but sympathetic. Billy (Rossif Sutherland) is the fresh-faced and cocky newcomer, who hasn’t done any time behind bars, which is a point of contention amongst the rest of the crew. Bug, suitably named for his bug-eyed features, is the loose cannon, a trigger-happy troublemaker threatening to derail any job. These characters act exactly like you would expect them to, which is a shame as it becomes easy to predict who will live and who will botch things up by the end.

Dick is one of the few characters that have any substance. The only former felon giving an honest effort to go straight, he is constantly torn between his morals and his motivations. Credit goes to Olyphant for his understated, atypical performance.

With his sharp features, he has been unconvincingly typecast as a go-to villain in films like Live Free or Die Hard and Hitman. However, he has never been entirely successful in these performances, producing much more believable characters in quieter roles in Go and Deadwood. The film’s tensest moments are not the shootouts or chase sequences, but the close-ups on Dick’s face, stricken by a confused mess of indecision.

For an independent feature, the film has a discernible style that looks great and was shot on handheld with de-saturated colours, adding a darker weight to the plentiful humour and cartoon antics. The setting and score are suitably bleak and grimy for these junkie criminals and there are no attempts at glamourizing anything they do.

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