Directed by Ben Wheatley
Fans of J.G. Ballards’s dystopian novel from the mid-Seventies will be put at ease during the opening establishing shots of Ben Wheatley’s incredibly faithful adaptation. Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump continue their successful run of films together, and acquiring the rights to this cult British property serves as a culmination of their personal love for the material and the clout they’ve earned as filmmakers.
It’s the perfect film for Wheatley and company to take on after making a name with Kill List and the mind-bending science experiment known as A Field in England. There’s a darker undertone on display here, but matched with Wheatley’s now fully confident visual style, High-Rise still brings over the dark comedy and feelings of isolation from the novel.
Reeling from a divorce and longing for a way to disappear, Robert Laing (Hiddleston) signs a ninety-nine-year lease and moves into the 25th floor of a massive, all-inclusive luxury building – the first of its kind with many more to come. There’s an immediate hierarchy, but Laing is just upper-middle class enough to mingle with the elite but still casually relate to the more working class families below. Because everything is so self-contained within the tower block, the societal prison of status becomes more of an illusion maintained by every walk of life. As things inside slowly deteriorate, beginning with a burnt-out light bulb and a broken down elevator, the entire system breaks down suddenly, devolving into an insane existence for every inhabitant.
In this newly formed United Animal Kingdom, the indulgences of the ultra-rich turn monstrously perverse as they try to maintain their lifestyle amidst pure and total chaos. Reacting to the situation, just as Hiddleston’s Laing retreats into his own private, more polite form of madness, the other characters transform into even more extreme versions of themselves. As Laing becomes more marginalized, Hiddleston’s subdued performance gets replaced by outlandish turns by James Purefoy as Pangbourne – a hilarious drunken aristocrat – and Luke Evan as Wilder – a bombastic documentarian determined to expose the upper class.
In an opening scene of Laing teaching medical students at his work, one of the film’s more graphic moments shows him peeling back the skin of a cadaver to reveal the brain inside. If the high-rise itself is that brain, the false sense of protection and order is also stripped away to reveal the raw nerves below. In this barbarian war between the haves and have-nots, Laing is the ego serving as the mediator between the jeweled desires of Pangbourne’s id and the moralizing center of Wilder’s superego.
If this was film school and not psychology class, a comparison between High-Rise and Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome could be drawn, pointing out the link both films share in their depiction of pretentious narcissists deciding to throw a neverending party that leads to a descent into madness. Other floors and the people living on them are represented fully in Wheatley’s film, but the story is always centered on the top floor and its elite inhabitants. Their journey to the nuthouse is just more entertaining because it’s all the more extreme.
In its entirety, High-Rise doesn’t just work as a parable or cautionary tale about class; it’s also a beautiful film to absorb with rich images and memorable, sweeping visual moments that marry Wheatley’s vision with Ballard’s dystopian sci-fi nightmare. Because of their close working relationship, Jump’s screenplay knows when to speak up and, more importantly, when to remain silent and rely on the fantastic work done here by cinematographer Laurie Rose. To match those images at times, Wheatley exhibits the kind of confidence that a director like Michael Mann shows; he isn’t afraid to let a melancholy cover of Abba’s “S.O.S” by Portishead become a music video reprieve.
High-Rise isn’t for everyone, but it is about everyone. Wheatley continues to prove that he is one of the most interesting directors working today, and although his Rolodex is probably getting bigger, his ego isn’t. His sense of humor is still intact and so is his blue-collar sensibility, but his ever-expanding technical ability and talent for visuals puts him on a path straight to the top of the food chain.