Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss
Director: Ben Wheatley
Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Ben Wheatley continues his attempts at channeling Ken Russell with his latest feature High-Rise; an adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel of the same name in which society breaks down through a corporate caste system which effectively turns people into monsters. Russell is famous for courting controversy in the 1960s and 70s for his brazen disregard for censorship and narrative-free shooting style, of which 1971's The Devils remains his crowning jewel of depraved cinema. Wheatley, meanwhile, has amassed his own cult following in the UK and abroad for channeling a similar kind of filmmaking aesthetic; arty, stylistic, undisciplined, and not concerned in the slightest with standard plotting and narrative structure. Previous efforts like the macabre domestic drama/hit man genre riff Kill List and the brilliantly wonky occult period piece A Field in England have afforded the filmmaker uncommon control over his productions. Pairing him with a writer like Ballard, whose work, save for Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Empire of the Sun and David Cronenberg's Crash, has long been deemed unfilmable, seems like a perfect fit. However, the satirical thrust of Ballard's prose as well his prophetically intellectual ideas in regards to 21st-Century capitalism, are all but abandoned here in favor of simplistic class war-fare motifs and a repetitive swirl of debauchery, violence, and social decay.
The film follows Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a forensic pathologist who moves into the 25th floor of the brand new luxury high-rise building conceived by architect Royal (Jeremy Irons, suitably reptilian) who resides on the luxuriant 40th floor. Laing is an attractive bachelor, a man of science, and someone with a mysterious past (there are hints of a sister who committed suicide), but mostly, he's a piece of flesh to be ogled at and then devoured. An upstairs neighbor (Sienna Miller) does most of the ogling as he conveniently falls asleep naked on his balcony with a book strategically placed over his male member, while local resident and documentary filmmaker Wilder (Luke Evans, acting mostly with huge mutton chops) takes care of the devouring; openly spreading his hatred for the wealthy living on the upper levels. Having an inherently likable screen presence like Hiddelston occupying such a thorny character certainly helps, but Laing is just another cog in a quasi-Marxist system which stumbles into anarchy without much conceivable build-up. Things escalate into chaos so quickly, with Wheatley working mostly in fragmented montages, that any sense of tension, momentum, or genuine investment in the outcome of such a scenario feels all but arbitrary.
All effective satires require a degree of subtlety to transcend self-parody, and it's here where High-Rise really stumbles. The screenplay by Amy Jump retains Ballard's worldview, but disregards the ambiguity of pitting an essentially middle-class group against the upper-class. Instead, it opts for sledgehammer obviousness; like playing audio of a Margaret Thatcher speech and having Che Guevara posters hanging in the background during several shots. This simplistic rendering of a complicated situation means that Wheatley's heightened artistry; including slow-motion, screen filters, blaring strobe lights, and sped up editing tricks, never feels as shocking or edgy as he clearly intends. It's almost as if the characters here are more or less mentally unstable from the outset, which means there's very little in the way of audience investment in terms of where the wobbly narrative is heading. Whereas Bong Joon-ho's traveling train thriller Snowpiercer used cannibalism as a metaphor for class differences, High-Rise gives us a French aristocratic theme party attended by the upper class, because, you know, audiences won't get the point otherwise.
Perhaps the overarching message of High-Rise is that both classes are artificial and primitive, and that everyone is just a few ticks away from depraved madness. However, though the film fetishizes it's 70s milieu with considerable style, placing this particular story in the past also means that Wheatley limits his picture's scope and impact. The garish costumes, bad mustaches, and tacky period decor affords much in the way of colorful set design, but tells us very little about the internal lives of the people trapped inside this building. Their desires, their wants, their fears; they are all beholden to the film's mechanical construction. It's a movie about being a cult movie; the kind of thing which relishes it's own outlandish depiction of rambling nihilism without the context that would make it intellectually stimulating. Ultimately, High-Rise is a big us-versus-them orgy thrown by a talented host who somehow forgot why he was throwing a party in the first place.