High Life came and went from theaters with little fanfare. Our loss. This little Canadian masterpiece has become one of my favorite black comedies, a movie that I can watch over and over again.
SPOILER ALERT: Tons of spoilers forthcoming.
High Life is a classic caper movie, with the added twist of down-and-out junkies powered by morphine and the picture-perfect setting, costuming and music of late 70s and early 80s metropolitan Eastern Canada. Three old friends; Dick, Bug and Donnie, tied together by prison, a taste for the underside of the criminal life, shooting morphine, and the band April Wine meet a fourth, pretty boy Billy, and the harebrained scheme to rob the new-fangled ATMs is on.
High Life captures a certain stoned/junked-out humour and the overall kind of lackadaisical mood of entropy: everything going to a chaotic, baroque hell. The actual caper itself takes a backseat to the genius character studies and the strange and sordid details of their down-and-out existence. It’s these details that so entranced me–and that I’ll focus on in this review. The costumes and hair/makeup for instance are brilliant. Steven Eric McIntyre as Bug couldn’t look greasier, and his cold gray eyes burn holes out of his pale grizzled face. He struts into his first scene wearing clapped-out flares and some seriously flash rattlesnake cowboy boots, reminding me of legendary close-up shots of gunfighters’ boots as they stride into the middle of the road for a battle. These boots announce that Bug Is Here and things are going to proceed downhill at a steady clip. Later, you see Bug’s big black and silver rings and a huge silver belt buckle of galloping horses, that fit right in with his self-image of a bad-arse cowboy pining for his horse, Jezebel. It’s fitting that he dies in the saddle, no? Pretty boy Billy, charismatically played by Rossif Sutherland, has the perfect Euro-boy new wave-ish uniform of stripey tight t-shirts and pegged black jeans, along with big 60-ish sideburns and a flop of wedge-cut hair that was the hipster haircut of the early 80s. He really looks the part of an early 80s bad boy/ladies man with hip fashion sense.
Then there’s some of the best use of soundtrack music I’ve heard in a while. The director has a similar gift for setting moods with music as does Scorcese and his legendary oeuvre that uses the Rolling Stones in pitch-perfect moments. This being a Canadian movie, it makes perfect sense to string the music of April Wine, along with screen shots of their vinyl albums and cassettes, throughout the movie. When we first see Dick’s messy junkie apartment, the first thing Dick does is put April Wine on the turntable, and the camera focuses on the album cover of “The Whole World’s Going Crazy”. When Bug hi-jacks the armoured truck and is driving maniacally through the city streets, he’s blasting April Wine’s “You Could Have Been a Lady” and gleefully singing along. And finally, when Dick is released from prison following the criminal travesty that was his ATM heist, he’s picked up by Donnie, who, as they drive off with the stereo on, explains to Dick that the new wave New Order playing is what’s current and cool in Dick’s post-prison world. Having none of this, Dick scrounges around in Donnie’s cassettes, and comes up with April Wine greatest hits, and in no time the two of them are singing along to “I Like to Rock” at full volume.
This band, along with CCR, 3 Dog Night and the kind of obscure (if you’re not a Canadian who was in his 20s during the late 70s) Montreal recording artist, Pagliaro–set a very specific mood: that of balls to the wall lose your head stoner rock. I was a total new wave/mod/ska/punk snob in my early 1980s jr high and high school years, but I still have fond memories of secretly blasting stoner rock out of my headphones or car stereo, and leaning back and just freaking time traveling. This kind of epic psychic release is what all of the characters in this film are searching for.
Lastly, there are the strange and wondrous uses of visual motifs: specifically, the colour pink and horses. The morphine pills are bright pink as they are crushed in the ice cream scooper, then dissolved into a brilliant pink solution that courses through the veins of Bug, Billy, Donnie and Dick. Junkies crave sugar, and in this movie, it’s pink sugar that is their cracked-out ambrosia. Billy eats a pink fluff of cotton candy, and the ice cream Bug pulls out of the freezer as they are cooking pink morphine in Dick’s apartment, is pink strawberry ice cream, natch. When we first see Bug and Dick cooking up and getting high, there’s a junky dream of thick pink sludge reminiscent of the “cook” slopping over the edge of a cardboard box. (Incidentally, that box has an image of a big red barn that perfectly syncs with the big red barn that contains the horses that Dick and Bug find at the end of the movie.) At the movie’s climax, there’s the mother of all pink paint bombs that so hilariously covers Bug and Dick, making Bug look like, in Dick’s words, “a f*#king pink Chuck Norris”.
And then, there’s the horses. First, we see them on Bug’s belt buckle, and then he has a junky vision of a horse standing over him that he calls “Jezebel”. (A childhood memory of a long lost steed? A sly reference to the junky slang word for heroin–“horse”?) Bug fancies himself to be a kind of cracked cowboy, and he meets his storied end covered with pink paint on the back of a horse, on his way to South America. I just love that kind of attention to detail–it’s what makes me want to watch this film over and over. And since High Life is on heavy rotation on Showtime, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing, with the speakers turned up to 11.