Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited)
Written by: Amy Jump
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Chaos reigns supreme in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, an adaptation of the 1975 novel penned by British author J.G. Ballard who envisioned a microcosm of society confined within a 40-story-tall luxury apartment building. After nearly four decades and several failed attempts at adapting material many considered ‘un-filmable,’ Ballard’s anarchical dreams have finally found a home on the big screen in 2016.
Despite several familiar trends, the 1970s-London-set High-Rise manages to differentiate itself by presenting an atypical dystopian society. Rather than prisoners of a faceless, nameless system, people are more often than not victims of their own circumstances, organized within the building according to their financial standing: the wealthy live on the top floors while the poor occupy lower levels. This isn’t a prison, for tenants haven’t been forced to abandon the conveniences of modern living nor have they been brainwashed into disassociating with the outside world. Rather, disaffection has occurred naturally, the conveniences of the building allowing those inside to gradually lose interest in anything it doesn’t provide. Additionally, and although it certainly feels like it at times, this isn’t a post-apocalyptic environment; the people who fill the frame represent only a fraction of society, those who we can safely assume actually wanted to come live here.
High-Rise is a movie of striking visual design, at times to a fault. Indeed, the building is a character unto itself, a looming entity with its upper five or ten floors precariously off-set from the rest. One look at this feat of civil engineering and you’re smitten. Even though it’s precisely the kind of physics-defying curiosity that has become old hat in these sorts of movies, the tower looks and feels right at home in our world. The cold, metal-gray interior features all the amenities you could imagine: shopping markets, gyms, pool-and-spa areas; there’s even a primary school. Parties are regularly thrown, often spilling over between floors, necessarily suggesting different economic classes still have the freedom to associate with whomever they so choose.
Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is our way into the building. A 25th-floor resident, Robert is a lecturer on physiology and commutes daily to and from the city. He allows himself some distance from other people until his upstairs neighbor, single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller), makes her presence known. The two quickly fall into a romance that eventually allows Robert to get to know her young but strange son Toby (Louis Suc). The first third of the film establishes the world inside this place and sees him getting acquainted with a few other eccentrics, including the Wilders, a family whose station in life seems to be being stuck on the bottom floor. Richard (Luke Evans) is a documentarian with a screw loose and more than a few probing questions. His wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is heavily pregnant and wishes Richard weren’t always out getting himself into trouble.
Robert soon finds himself summoned to the penthouse, where high rise architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his socialite wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) live. Well, flourish really. He’s brought up for an opportunity to get to know some of the building’s more prestigious fellows, a networking opportunity if you want to call it that. In some ways Hiddleston’s place within the narrative, especially with regards to his association with such characters, feels reminiscent of Jonathan Pine and his fraternization with dangerous types in the brilliant TV mini-series The Night Manager, a John le Carré adaptation in which a former British soldier is recruited by MI6 to infiltrate the ranks of a notorious international arms dealer in order to bring him down.
While a sense of impending doom is distinctly lacking with regards to Robert’s situation, part of the crux of this story does concern an evolving perception of who the doctor really is, particularly as he begins currying favor with some of the elites. (He even gets to play a game of squash with Mr. Royal!) It’s no coincidence his apartment is almost smack-dab in the middle of the building. The metaphor is almost too overt: Robert’s not like the rest, he plays as though the rules don’t apply and thus finds himself in the precarious position of not caring whether or not he improves his current life. His physical location within this building, like it does everyone else, says a lot about the opportunities he has been afforded.
This puzzling drama is an exercise in random visual stimulation, so it’s fitting that the central conflict arises haphazardly as well. It takes three months from the day Robert moves in for the social infrastructure to fail. Specifically what triggers the collapse isn’t made clear, but basic necessities are the first to go: electricity, clean water, food supplies, proper garbage disposal. A man throwing himself from the 39th floor onto the hood of a car is the most apparent indicator of things starting to go awry. And later: complete pandemonium as the irascible Richard Wilder stages a revolution to take down Royal, who he believes is the one responsible for things falling apart. More perceptive viewers will notice that, while all of this is going on, police are nowhere to be seen.
Lang isn’t exactly immune to the insanity, and it’s in his slow slide into a state of acceptance that maybe . . . just maybe, Royal’s plans aren’t completely sinister, that in some weird way society itself is what has failed him and failed the building. Wheatley ensures our perspective on the matter aligns with Robert’s, a tactic that allows us to remain as close to impartial as possible. And it’s not like Robert isn’t flawed himself. As the level of chaos increases we see his behavior change as well. A scene in the grocery store is particularly memorable, exhibiting a side of the doctor we haven’t yet seen: angry, desperate, and violent. He’s become overwhelmed by the survival instinct, protecting what matters most to him — in this case, a bucket of paint. At this point we are well beyond rules. Society is now left to fend for itself as Royal and his cronies continue to look for a way to improve the facilities.
High-Rise is an intensely visual piece that doesn’t quite resonate as the profound sociopolitical allegory it was clearly set on becoming and that the book has been heralded as. Nonetheless, it approaches a familiar subject with a gusto that allows us to overlook the fraying edges, offering up a hallucinatory experience that is as unpredictable as it is entertaining and thought-provoking.
Recommendation: Fans of the weird and the dystopian need apply. High-Rise gets carried away with itself every now and then, with some sequences beginning and ending so sporadically you want to believe many of the transitions were done this way to add to the disorientation (and maybe this really was the thinking). Well-performed and even better shot. Cinematography is a high point, while Tom Hiddleston’s performance reminds us why this is an actor who should have more work. He’s too good. So is Jeremy Irons, but this is really Hiddleston’s movie.
Running Time: 119 mins.
Quoted: “There’s no food left. Only the dogs. And Mrs. Hillman is refusing to clean unless I pay her what I apparently owe her. Like all poor people, she’s obsessed with money.”
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