A man is disheveled, unshaven and clearly hasn’t bathed or done laundry in a long time. The high-rise he lives in isn’t much different, trash accumulating in every spot it can. Narration tells us he enjoys this isolated existence, or at least he tells himself he does. He befriends a dog in the ruins, taking it with him on scavenging trips throughout the decaying remains of the building. He pets the dog lovingly as he sits on his porch, the dog is perhaps his only true companion in this cold and lonely existence. The next shot sees the dog’s leg cooking on a spit. This is Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, adapted by Amy Jump from the cult 70′s set novel by J.G. Ballard.
3 months before eating man’s best friend, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) arrives at his new loft in a futuristic high-rise apartment block where everything he needs is in the structure. There is a grocery store, a gym, a pool, a spa – he never has to go outside again! This abundance of convenience is comically juxtaposed by a tenant getting into his car and immediately having a bird poop on him. Laing fits himself well into the societal structure, acting as a middle ground between the lower and upper classes, each of them distinguished by what number their floor is. This paradise ends when the power goes out, plunging the block into class warfare.
There’s a black-hole level of comedy permeating underneath here, it’s in moments like Robert demonstrating the human skull for students by peeling off the skin, sawing through the bone and pounding it open in half, going about an act so grotesque so clinically. For no apparent reason, Robert shimmies down a hallway with a bunch of airline stewardesses in one quick scene.
The cast is certainly top notch. Tom Hiddleston handles lead status well, playing Robert with a curious detachment. Luke Evans delicately combines hyper-masculinity and vulnerability. James Purefoy is delightfully smarmy. Elisabeth Moss handles a British accent with ease. Sienna Miller and Sienna Guillory underscore their haughty characters with raw humanity and tragedy. Jeremy Irons provides the necessary mystique and authority as Royal, the architect of the building who hides away on the top level.
Prior to this film, I had only seen one film by Ben Wheatley, his 2011 film Kill List. That was all it took to tell me this guy is a genius. Kill List was a category-defying, genre-tripping nightmare that seared itself onto your brain, a truly unforgettable piece of cinema. I would watch anything by him after that. High-Rise is certainly a well-put together piece of cinema, yet doesn’t quite have the bite that it seems the source novel did.
In pure Wheatley fashion, the film is insane. There aren’t many filmmakers unhinged enough who could have even halfway made this film work. There are passages of the film that are so sublime and strong in their metaphor and construction of ideas. Certain lines of dialogue so simply communicate the struggle at the heart of the film. “We pay the same as the top floors, we want our share of the power,” one character complains. One scene finds Robert going to a party on one of the top floors where only upper elite class tenants are supposed to be, and in a of production design and costuming genius, everyone at the party is dressed like a French aristocrat and acting the part, quickly laughing Robert out of the party for not fitting in. To cap it all off, composer Clint Mansell has a string quartet cover of ABBA’s “SOS” playing over the scene, a piece of music you never knew you needed to hear. I felt high off the brilliant fumes watching this scene. There are moments like this in the film, where you just smile with glee at how well Wheatley puts it all together, but there are other moments where it just falls apart instead. High-Rise becomes so overstuffed with ideas and themes that it simply topples over on itself, so much so that I can barely recall much of what actually happens in the third act. I can never fault a filmmaker for having ambition, and Wheatley’s strengths lie in his insanity as a director. High-Rise faults in a lack of focus then, but not for a lack of trying. If High-Rise is not a great film, it is at least through-and-through a Ben Wheatley film, failing on his terms, which is good enough for me.