high_rise_3Year: 2016
Director(s): Ben Wheatley
Writer(s): J.G. Ballard, Amy Jump
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 119 mins

Synopsis: After a power failure, residents of a tower block spiral out of control. (Source)

High-Rise is a luxurious, one-way express elevator straight to hell. Director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump have done the impossible with J.G. Ballard’s “unfilmable” novel, translating the author’s poetic prose into a primal experience that feels meaner and nastier than its source material. Reworking the story from the ground up, the film takes Ballard’s apocalyptic cautionary tale and presents a rich exploration of moral and social collapse, one in which not a single frame is wasted, and an initial viewing may not be enough to unravel the film’s decadent mayhem. Imagine the visual panache of Blade Runner with the nightmarish, incendiary ethos of Fight Club and that’s just scratching the surface of this wildly perverse satire. Deliberately revolting, High-Rise is bound to disgust and divide, but it’s also a brilliant example of Wheatley at the peak of his powers, delivering one of the year’s most singular cinematic experiences.

The story begins with Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), who moves into a new, luxurious high-rise tower after the death of his sister. Confronting the excitement of the unknown, he feels both at odds and at home in the building, which is, in itself a self-contained eco-system replete with unwitting social stratification and various amenities. Segregated from the city, the tower has everything you could ever need: a school, swimming pools, a supermarket and more. Once the building’s disparate and diverse inhabitants settle in however, their lives are tested and their malaise reaches its breaking point when a power failure strikes. From there, the insulated society begins to crumble, with hallways becoming war zones and a journey to reach the upper-class at the building’s top floors signifying a revolt in status quo. With the tower’s inhabitants turning into savage animals overnight, primal instincts take over and a once, luxurious living space becomes an inescapable prison.

What could’ve easily been a pointed commentary on class warfare and social segregation instead becomes a vast portrait of a society unified and obsessed with a warm blanket of consumerism, capitalism and the search for identity therein. As such, Wheatley’s disorienting execution unfolds parallel to the maddening disintegration of his characters and their surroundings, jumping from characters of differing classes as they plot the assurance of their authority or succumb to the void of their vapid ignorance. Excess rules the film, with characters who never hide their darkest desires and act on self-destructive impulses on a whim. Structurally, the film is labyrinthian and dense, with each scene contrasting the gulf between certain characters’ blasé commitment to mind-numbing complacency with the horror and death that lurks behind each hallway or closed door. As the film progresses, Wheatley draws us deeper into a world that we can’t escape, simply because it’s hypnotic and impossible to look away from – in that way we feel complicit in the establishment of the tower as a gilded cage, even as it ushers in a new, terrifying world built on fear and sociopathy. It’s important to remember though, all of this is delivered with a dose of black humor, and you’ll sometimes hate yourself for laughing.

high_rise_2Just as Ballard’s novel relished in its written poetry, Wheatley’s film deftly finds ways to translate the narrative into aural and visual form. The best example of this is the high-rise as the film’s silently deafening character. The production design by Mark Tildesley features jagged geometric architecture to contrast with the cutthroat rule of the building’s concrete jungle, while Laurie Rose’s cinematography uses light, shadow and deliberate compositions to frame each progressively ludicrous act of debauchery and detachment. As parties spill sonically through walls, we feel the inhabitants being subtly reformed to their doom, reacting and transforming to the building’s ebb and flow as it slowly dies from within.

Though the film is stacked with an ensemble that delivers from top to bottom, there are a few central performances that stick out. Tom Hiddleston’s Dr. Robert Laing is, like the book, still smartly used as an entry point, and the actor brings his charm to a character whose insidious detachment is hard to watch at times – he’s as magnetic as his descent to madness. Sienna Miller, as the enigmatic Charlotte Melville wears her fragility on her sleeve and brings to life a social butterfly with shifting motivations. Acting as the high-rise’s architect, Jeremy Irons’ Anthony Royal is the film’s gatekeeper in a way, watching from above quite literally as if hesitant to partake in his own twisted game. He plays Royal with a cool distance, both confident but silently weary of what he fears is to come. Elisabeth Moss plays a lower-floor resident named Helen. Moss plays the expecting mother as pragmatic and sly, somehow navigating the chaos with keen awareness. Lastly, Luke Evans’ rabid Richard Wilder is perhaps the most acerbic of the bunch, and in many ways playing the most honest. He gives his all to a character who doesn’t know how to mask his ugly interior and flourishes through terrifying savagery.

High-Rise is an adaptation that confidently compliments its source material, realizing that note-for-note mimicry doesn’t always equate to narrative or thematic authenticity. Keeping the spirit of Ballard’s novel intact, Wheatley and Jump’s film is at once elegant and unabashedly crass, conveying a spirit of anarchy and exploring humanity at its most fundamental. It’s the kind of film that engages and challenges, at times difficult to watch, but always urging us to dig deeper – repeated viewings already feel like a must. Wheatley’s knocked it out of the park here, delivering a film that burrows deep into our psyche to leave us scared and overwhelmed, but also desiring to be permanent resident in its nightmarish utopia…

SG