Judge Patrick Bromley feels he's lived this life before.
Our review of High Life, published February 4th, 2010, is also available.
One last chance for the perfect heist.
From the opening moments of the 2009 caper movie High Life, it becomes instantly apparent that the movie isn't going to offer anything we haven't seen before. The first shot is of a shootout from what appears to be a heist gone bad, so it's like Reservoir Dogs (or The Killing or 30 other movies). Then we get star Timothy Olyphant's voice-over: "Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be a lawyer." Ha! It's a knowing homage/minor spin on Ray Liotta's opening narration in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Cue opening credits, set to Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not to Come." You know—the same song prominently used in the great Boogie Nights.
See where I'm going with this?
Facts of the Case
The year is 1983. Dick (Timothy Olyphant, Catch and Release) is a small-time crook and morphine addict who has just lost his job and is looking to change his lot in life. His old friend and partner, the sociopathic Bug (Stephen Eric McIntyre, The Lookout) is fresh out of prison and ready to score. Dick, big thinker that he is, comes up with a plan to rip off those new ATM machines that so many banks have been installing lately, so he enlists the aid of terminally ill petty thief Donny (Joe Anderson, Across the Universe) and pretty boy Billy (Rossif Sutherland, Timeline) to pull off one big job. As anyone who's ever seen a movie will tell you, it's never quite that easy.
There's nothing very objectionable about the drugged-out heist movie High Life, but there's nothing really special about it either. It's the kind of movie that passes before your eyes, covering familiar beats from a dozen or more films that have all covered the same ground, only better. Even Timothy Olyphant—an actor I really like—has done better, more memorable work in other movies. It's not a complete waste of your time, but it's hardly a very good use of it, either.
Even the movie's aesthetic feels tired. High Life is the kind of film where every actor could use a long bath and a shave—it's grubby and grungy and greasy and sweaty. It's generally unpleasant, but that's the idea, and there are moments where the characters' paranoia actually does begin to seep into the viewers' bones. It's the mark of a well-made movie that such sequences are that effective, and High Life is, at the very least, a well-made movie. Director Gary Yates does a nice job of balancing out the nervous, druggy tension with beats of off-kilter humor, particularly in the film's first half. Unfortunately, once the heist goes bad (at just past the midway point, I'd say), you can feel the air let out of High Life and it becomes the same kind of routine dishonor-among-thieves black comedy that filled the video store shelves in the post-Pulp Fiction '90s. Despite a promising opening half, the film stumbles towards a climax that doesn't carry much weight before rushing its ending. At least there's a good reason for the ending to feel so truncated—this is a short, short movie (about 74 minutes before the end credits start to roll). The second and third acts simply feel like they were combined for the sake of expediency, and the movie suffers as a result. Still, at least you're able to get in and out in just over an hour, making it difficult to ever become bored. Small favors, I guess.
If there's an even bigger problem with High Life, it's that we never particularly care if our heroes get away with the heist or not. There's no one to like. I don't mean that anyone has to be sympathetic—this is, after all, a movie about low-rent, drug-addicted criminals—but we should at least like them enough to be invested in what they're doing. Consider Reservoir Dogs: sure, it's a cheat to say that Tim Roth is sympathetic, because he's a cop. But we also like Steve Buscemi, because he's funny and seems to be using his head in a bad situation. Harvey Keitel is a man with a code of honor that makes him respectable. Michael Madsen's Mr. Blonde may be terrifying and psychotic, but he's also funny and utterly fascinating. I'm not expecting High Life to come up with characters as good as Tarantino's, but it hardly gives us characters at all. Stephen McIntyre's Bug is immediately recognizable as the loose cannon that's going to get someone killed, but he's never really interesting (he does have one moment that suggests there's more to his character than we're being told, but it's never really dealt with; I won't say what it is, but you'll know it when you see it). I think we're supposed to like Olyphant, because he's the star and because he doesn't want to get anyone killed. That doesn't quite make for a character, and as much as I like him as an actor he isn't given much to work with here. Anderson and Sutherland fare the best; Anderson because he gains some sympathy for being sick and Sutherland because he's goofy and seems to be having a good time. He makes you wish the other characters would lighten up, too.
High Life comes to DVD courtesy of Image Entertainment. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks good, with reasonably sharp detail and a color scheme that's faithful to the film's drab, dirty source. The 5.1 audio track handles the dialogue just fine, with a little extra punch reserved for gunfire and the pretty-good classic rock soundtrack (and it's always good to hear "Age of Consent" by New Order pop up, though it's pretty impossible for me to hear that song now and not think of Marie Antoinette). The only extra included on the disc is the film's original theatrical trailer.
My favorite part of the DVD—possibly of any DVD ever—is on the back of the disc jacket. It's a quote from Variety.com, and it says: "Terrific…Timothy Olyphant and Stephen Eric McIntyre." That's the exact quote. Read it again. Read it every day. Know it. Live it.
Familiar…Timothy Olyphant and Stephen Eric McIntyre.
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