How many junkies does it take to rob a bank? Canadian director/writer Gary Yates attempts to answer this question in his movie High Life—at least, I think that’s what he’s trying to do. The actual point of this disjointed movie remains unclear.
It starts off with a monologue on the joys of taking morphine, and then cuts to what appears to be a failed robbery. The story finally starts, three days before the first scene takes place. We are graced with the presence of aggressive, greasy, newly released convict Bug (Stephen Eric McIntyre) who visits his ex-cellmate Dick (played by Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant) at work. He gets Dick fired from his job, after which both go to Dick’s apartment, shoot morphine, and decide to rob a bank.
Dick decides they must find a crew, and they end up recruiting two more drug addicts: Donnie (Across the Universe’s Joe Anderson), who makes a living thieving women’s wallets at church only to return them after stealing from their accounts, and pretty boy Billy (Rossif Sutherland), who uses his French charm to get nurses to give him prescription opiates. This skill is essential to the team, as they need someone to sweet talk one of the bank’s tellers. Bug was apparently the stud in their past schemes, though judging by both his physical appearance and his violent personality, it’s hard to believe. Bug is then rejected by Billy when he tries to kiss him in a washroom, and this another aspect of the movie that left me wondering what Yates was trying to accomplish.
The film doesn’t need its dramatic shootout in the opening scene to hint at the fact that the heist will be a bust. It does, however, make Dick’s speech to Bug about not killing people while they rob the bank’s ATMs ironically amusing.
Truthfully, High Life isn’t lacking in funny moments. It actually makes addiction seem like a fun time by ignoring both the glamour and despondency commonly attributed to it. The only negative aspect shown about the characters’ drug habits is the fact that none of them manages to remain sober. Even when Dick makes the crew swear to sobriety the night before the robbery, they all do fail at this, including him. The day of the robbery, Donnie shows up high, Bug gets stoned in the car before deciding to steal an armoured van, and Billy shoots up while driving away from the bank. Dick is left attempting to pick up the pieces of his friends’ drug-induced shenanigans.
The most interesting thing about the film is how Gary Yates plays with the time period. Taking place in a nondescript North American city in 1983, we get to see how early ATMs looked, and the era’s peculiar wardrobe is recreated well. Yates also succeeds with his selection of music, pitting the characters’ preferred late 1960s music like Three Dog Night against the emerging New Wave sound, which they love to criticize. Bug even beats up Donnie for stealing his April Wine cassette tape, but it’s clear that by the early 1980s, classic rock and opiates were already a thing of the past. The added irony, though, is that High Life is also coming late to the trend—really, junkie-inspired flicks reached their peak two decades ago.
The motif of the lone ranger also appears often in the film, as Dick dreams of one day owning a ranch. The crew watch a Western together in Dick’s apartment, and while fleeing from the police, Bug hops on a horse while wearing a Stetson. These seemingly pointless images only create more confusion, though. Is Yates trying to show how ridiculous cowboy imagery is, or is he praising it? The intent of his symbolism remains pretty unclear.
High Life attempts to transpose one past era onto another, relying on elements from Trainspotting and its ilk. Unfortunately, the resulting mixture of comedy and cultural relics is distorted at best. Yates seems to be trying to revive the past, but does not know which parts to leave behind. This dooms his movie as much as the characters in it. As Dick eloquently puts it, “We’re all dying, fuck.” I doubt even he’d be dying, though, to see this film.
High Life opens in theatre on Jan. 15.