I sometimes think that we go about defining genres in the wrong way. When I want to annoy people, I say there are only three types of movie: the Western, the Rom-Com and the War Movie. But there are genres of – not theme, exactly – story: the Road Movie, the End of the World Movie, the Coming of Age Movie. Within those genres, the more traditional genres all appear – road movie comedies, tragic apocalypses, and so on.
Particularly prevalent is the Heist-Gone-Wrong Movie, and High Life is a blackly comic entry into the genre.
It’s simple enough: 1983, and new-fangled ATMs prompt a drug addict to ‘plan’ and carry out a bank robbery with a group of friends of differing levels of addiction, competence and sanity. Inevitably, it all goes horribly wrong. The result is a very funnny movie that plays with the malfunctioning logic of drug addiction to great effect. It doesn’t pull it’s punches, and mostly doesn’t belabour either the humour or the darker points that undercut it (it’s obvious one character has AIDS, but it’s never explicitly stated, because in 1983, who knew?). It handles the twists well – both the unexpected and the inevitable (well, someone was always going to get shot…)
I’d say that it shows its origins as a stage play – although I don’t know if I’d say that if I hadn’t known – hm… Some of the speeches have that sort of feel, as do the wilder elaborations – but on the other hand, I’ve no idea how some of the action would have been handled on stage – without knowing what has been changed, it’s hard to judge. It never feels stagey, just occasionally theatrical rather than cinematic.
That’s partly the script, but also the delivery, and they tie perfectly well to the tone – the slightly arch, heightened reality of black comedy. It’s particularly good for its star, Timothy Olyphant. Much as I adore the guy’s eyebrows*, I always slightly feel as if he’s at one remove from his roles: here, it meshes with the overall feel of the film. (And it’s not as noticeable as in crappy roles like his villain in Live Free or Die Hard.) You could also say that this character is the flipside to the one he played in Go – still one of my favourite late-90s films.