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Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: J.G. Ballard (novel), Amy Jump
Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller
At one point in director Ben Wheatley‘s latest drama, a man is splayed out on a sofa, his face and clothes covered in blood, both his own and that of several others. He’s committed terrible acts of violence, including the rape and beating of a women he has been lusting after for some time. And yet, he’s called the sanest man in the building. The man claiming this is Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), the newest member in this closed-off community, a participant in the breakdown and a neutral player (though entrenched both sides) in a battle between the upper and lower floors of the High-Rise.
One doesn’t need to be familiar with British social hierarchy to follow along in this adaptation of J.G. Ballard‘s highly influential and acclaimed book, which sees two distinct classes descend to tribal warfare when the building they all share begins to close in around them. The film keeps true to the theme (changing some key plot points), setting the time, like in the book, in an ambiguous 1970s. Laing, a dapper, fit, and handsome single man gets a coveted apartment on the 25th floor, halfway between the upper and lower levels. He moves in, leaving his nondescript unpacked boxes stacked neatly about the flat, never opening them. He uses the gym on the 30th floor, shops in the well-stocked market below and makes acquaintances on both sides of the divide. One of them is the building’s architect, a mysterious man named Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives in the penthouse with his disenchanted wife in lavish wealth but sneering contempt (she rides a white horse on the building’s garden rooftop). Royal is seen hovering over his blueprints often, tweaking his work while beneath his feet, it steadily fails.
The residents of the high-rise seem unaware that they are self-contained, going about their lives within the building with crackling tension. All the while, lights flicker, water turns on and off and blame is pointed at everyone else. Things are clearly on the verge of getting out of hand, and one day, when the rich have closed the pool for a private party, the lower floors herd the children in a frenzy to the water, led by Richard Wilder (Luke Evans). They crash the party, setting off a bitter conflict that sends the building into a reign of chaos, violence and wild sexual orgies. Anarchy sweeps through the floors on both ends with each bidding for control of the compound. This isn’t a fight like you’d expect though. The war is called a ‘party’ by the wealthy, and the violence is more like weekend hooliganism rather than bloody firefights and riots. There is a strange order to the madness. Inhibitions fall like it’s the end of days, yet while the halls fill with refuse and carnage, no one makes for the exits. There is no leaving the high-rise, even though the front door is open.
Wheatley crafts a carefully constructed demolition, which seems oxymoronic in the telling but is a masterpiece of cinema storytelling in the delivery. Rife with metaphor and symbolism, there is much happening in the peripheral of High-Rise, with its snappy jump cuts and blink or you’ll miss it imagery, but also in the broader strokes of character development. Laing, for instance, spends nearly the entirety of the movie in his suit and tie, though it degrades significantly as the story progresses. He is torn between the lifestyle of the wealthy above and the community of those below. He is no a hero, instead a vision of indifference, at one point slathering his apartment and himself in neutral gray paint, a can he fought almost to the death to have. Seeking his own pleasures, he has passionless sex with Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), which even for her seems perfunctory (sleeping around is her thing). He also beds a 9-month pregnant wife of a neighbor. That’s what he does. He locks horns with a liaison from the upper floor but also with self-appointed hall-monitor type below. At the height of the downfall, Charlotte calls him the building’s best amenity.
The casting is, for the most part, flawless. Hiddleston is a carved stone of a character, an implacable man of great need but no urgency, reading the situation and reacting. He befriends Toby (Louis Suc) the young son of Charlotte who is wickedly intelligent and watching it all with bemusement, his father, he tells Laing while pointing skyward, “lives up there”. It implies Heaven to Laing, but we know otherwise. Miller disappears into the role of Charlotte, a woman used to having sex to get what she wants (or not), so casual about it, it is neither satisfying nor repulsive. It just is. The control she has over men is palpable, so when the rules crumble, and that control is lost, it becomes harrowing. Irons is typically good, a regal and honorable man blind to the foibles of his creation, convinced the initial rumblings of his building are it just settling. Evans comes off best though in a brutal, electrifying performance as a documentary filmmaker jammed in the cogs of the deteriorating machine. Bewildered by the apathy of the rich and the unwillingness of his contemporaries to rise up, he is a powder keg without a fuse. He’s startling good.
Wheatley isn’t making movies for mainstream. There is a purposeful challenge to his films that can make them a little unreachable for some. His brilliant but flawed A Field In England didn’t find an audience, despite it being one of the more visionary experiences of 2013. High-Rise is a much bigger project with a larger budget and crew, yet Wheatley still creates some powerfully imaginative moments and proves he is taking the process in a new direction. That vision, accompanied by Clint Mansell‘s maniacally good score, is half the reason High-Rise is as strong as it is. While there are some minor issues, including another prologue that tells us what is going to happen before jumping back in time to get us there, there is little to take away from this thought-provoking endeavor. Wheatley takes the dystopian themes of Ballard’s work and gives is a modernist sheen, delivering a slice of chaos that may feel maddening when it’s over, but nonetheless, magnificent.