Cards on the table: I adore J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise. Normally it takes quite a bit to get me excited about an adaptation, especially of a book I love, but the moment I heard Ben Wheatley, the man behind such gonzo, genre defying fare as Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England, was on the case, it all just made so much damn sense. I would have kept a close eye on either a new Ben Wheatley film or an adaptation of High-Rise, but the fact that I could do both at the same time was just gravy.
And Wheatley doesn’t disappoint. High-Rise captures the manic dystopian nature, the wry wit, and the blackly comic tone and mood of Ballard’s novel. As the story transitions into a full-blown chaotic nightmare, the feel and aesthetic evolve right along with the narrative. Eschewing typical markers that section off the film and divide it into clearly defined acts, there is a drifting formlessness, the finished product never in a hurry to get where it’s going.
This sense of floating in a choppy sea, at the whims and mercy of the tides, mirrors the protagonist, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston). Set in the 1970s, after the death of his sister—which you come to recognize was his last true tether to the normal world—Laing moves into a flat on the 25th floor of a gargantuan, ultramodern high-rise on the outskirts of London. Built by a near mythical architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), it is designed to be a social ecosystem in and of itself, catering to the every need of its tenants. There are high-speed elevators, a gym, a swimming pool, a spa, even primary schools and a supermarket. There is little reason to leave.
Laing falls in with his party-girl neighbor Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), failed documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), and his naïve, pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss). There are parties, drugs, booze, sex, and good times all around. And Wheatley films it all with cool, calculating eye.
Some have leveled accusations of style over substance at High-Rise, but oh what a style. And there’s much more to it than simple aesthetic choices. Wheatley uses the strange, retro-future architecture of the titular structure, the confined spaces, and a bevy of technical flourishes, to add layers of thematic and tonal depth—the edifice is presented as a living, breathing thing, with a brain, a body, veins. Like the building itself, there’s an initial surface sheen to the film. It’s new, exciting, alluring, sexy. But over time, it wears away, eroding to reveal the sinister darkness and depravity just below.
Within this initially idyllic, fancy-free façade, cracks form. As the building breaks down, so does the social structure. Simmering class conflicts—there are literally lower and upper classes—boil to the surface, and what begins as a clash of castes eventually devolves into anarchic mayhem as the high-rise reverts to a feral, savage state. Marauding gangs roam the hallways during blackouts, scavenging for food and waging war. In a very real sense, it goes from dystopian to post-apocalyptic, all within this handy, self-contained microcosm.
As he has done so adroitly in the past, Ben Wheatley pushes and pushes and pushes at boundaries. He really is the perfect director to adapt High-Rise, as he so often does in his movies precisely what Ballard does in his novel—it’s truly an ideal meshing of filmmaker and source material.
Wheatley uses grim, startling imagery—one early shot of a corpse with his head in a hollowed-out TV sticks to the ribs, as does an ultra slow motion scene of a body falling from 39 stories up, impacting the hood of a car. His choice of music further sets the tone. Classical pieces juxtapose with synth-heavy no-wave tracks, butting up against each other with jarring, discordant effect. Then there’s Portishead’s cover of Abba’s “S.O.S.” a dreary, desolate rendering of the upbeat pop classic. The British outfit’s first new recording in a number of years, set over an extended montage near the middle of High-Rise, forms the one true turning point of the film, marking the move from almost joyful class scuffle to full-scale anarchy.
As dark and violent as High-Rise can be, it never loses its satiric bite. Despite the swirling mayhem, the residents cling to their status, to what is proper, even as they run around fighting and raping and kidnapping. It becomes the new normal, a warped reflection of what we can come to accept. Even when the police do show up, Royal sends them away with a simple everything is fine, though, of course, he strips off his blood-soaked jacket first.
Even as he becomes embroiled in all of this, Laing is never truly involved. When things go off the rails, he continues to bob along, a middle ground, never part of the elite, never part of the underclass. Like no one else, he is ideally suited to the “psychological pressures of high-rise life.” Laing is our eyes. If Wheatley’s camera keeps a reserved distance, it is in mimicry of Laing. With his removed state, he is more observer than actor—it’s also possible to read the entire film as a metaphor for his crumbling mind as he attempts to process the grief over the death of his sister. More than any other resident, the surreal, distorted normalcy of the high-rise is where he belongs.
There are a few listless moments in the middle (and the very end is a wee bit on the nose), but for the most part High-Rise luxuriates in the twisted, and delights in making ordinary scenes seem bizarre and off-kilter, and off-the-wall lunacy feel run-of-the-mill.
I understand complaints people have about this movie—High-Rise certainly isn’t for everyone—and I recognize that I’m predisposed to this combination (it’s practically hardwired at this point), but Ben Wheatley’s latest is everything I wanted it to be. [Grade: A]
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