High Life ***
Directed By: Gary Yates.
Written By: Lee MacDougall, based on his play.
Starring: Timothy Olyphant (Dick), Stephen Eric McIntyre (Bug), Joe Anderson (Donnie), Rossif Sutherland (Billy).
Canadian movies, especially English Canadian movies, have a reputation of being rather austere and pretentious - movies made for a small audience that feature weird sex, strange violence and are essentially movies that no one in their right mind would actually want to watch. The rare attempt at an audience pleaser is usually met with apathy from audiences who do not want to see something that feels like an American movie with lower production values. This is why High Life was such a pleasant surprise when I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival. This is a Canadian film, if given the chance, I think a lot of audience members will actually quite enjoy.
The film stars Timothy Olyphant as Dick, a morphine addict living in Winnipeg in the early 1980s. He has spent time in jail, and now has a job as a janitor at a hospital. It is not a great life, but it suits him. Then his old cellmate Bug (Stephen Eric McIntyre) gets out of prison, and promptly gets Dick fired. Bug is also a morphine addict, but he is prone to violent outbursts and uncontrollable fits of rage. Dick likes Bug, but cannot control him. Bug immediately wants to start planning a new "job”, but Dick is resistant. Anything that involves Bug, involves the risk of violence.
But then an idea comes to Dick. The banks have these new fangled things called ATMs, and the occasionally these machines needed to be repaired by maintenance men. If Dick, Bug and their team - tech expert Donnie (Joe Anderson) and pretty boy Billy (Rossif Sutherland) can convince the bank that the machines need to serviced, then they can come in and pretend to be repairman and steal all of the money out of the backs of the machines.
Of course the is ridiculous. In real life, it would probably turn out just like it turns out in this movie. Completely and totally screwed up. The plan essentially to get Donnie to use the debit cards he has stolen to withdraw a lot of different amounts of money to get the receipts. Billy will then go to the teller and tell them that when he requested $60 the machine gave him $600. They think the reaction of the bank will be to call in the repairman, which Dick and Bug will pose as. Instead, things go horribly wrong, no repairman are called in. Bug gets fed up, and decides to hold the armored car that pulls up in front of the bank. A shootout occurs, and things just get more screwed up from there.
The movie moves at lightning speed throughout its entire running time. Director Gary Yates has obviously studied his Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino movies, as the movie opens with the track “Mama Told Be Not to Come”, and continues with the classic rock soundtrack throughout (the characters particularly seem to love April Wine). His camera also is continuously moving, but unlike many directors who try and do this, Yates actually knows how it do properly.
The film is based on a play by Lee McDougal (who also wrote the screenplay), which I later learned took place entirely in Dick’s apartment, and then the car outside the bank during their botched bank robbery. They decided to “open” the play up, and add in the action to make it more cinematic. And while I think they achieved that goal, I almost wonder if the movie would not have been more effective had they simply found a cinematic way to stick to the play. The best scenes in the movie are the ones where the characters bicker at each other constantly. The action sequences that close out the movie, while well made, seem a little too by the numbers to be truly exciting. But that’s a minor problem. Most Canadian films are made with a very small audience in mind. Here is a movie that is entertaining from start to finish. While it may not reinvent the wheel, it does what it does very well. The performances are all top notch, the direction and writing well done. This is an audience pleaser.