Ben Wheatley has directed some solid films – Kill List, Sightseers, and the very weird A Field in England. (those are the ones i’ve seen in raddest to decentest order) So, when I heard that he had a new film called High-Rise coming out, I was excited to check it out. When the trailer came out, I was even more excited. It looked like a beautiful blend of violence and very weird. When I heard/read mixed things about it, I was totally on-board. Movies that inspire love-it-or-hate-it responses are always worth checking on no matter which side I end up on. When it came to VOD before its theatrical run, I watched. And now, dear readers, I’m reporting faithfully on that experience. (you’re welcome)
Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston)moves into a flat on the 25th floor (of 40) in the first of 5 new high-concept high-rises (the others are still under construction). Despite the building’s huge population, it’s a rather insular community, with gossip traveling from floor to floor at lightning speed. He’s soon feted by the residents above and below him. He even makes it all the way to the top (the hangout of the social elites) to meet the architect, Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons), in his lavish rooftop garden. It quikly becomes apparent that there’s a hierarchy within the building – the lower your floor, the lower your social standing. As an upper-middle resident, Laing is accepted by some of the higher floors and admired by the lower floors. This puts him in an awkward position, as he is suspected of being a higher floor sympathizer when the shit hits the fan. And the shit hits the fan hard in the form of a full-on intrabuilding class war almost the instant vital services (garbage collection, electricity, etc) fail. The residents rapidly descend into debauchery and primal brutality.
Wheatley has crafted a loving homage to 70s film and a couple of its icons. In adapting J.G. Ballard’s novel (which i haven’t read, but i thought I should mention), he gives us an alternative dystopian past, the premise of which is fundamentally believable. Obviously (if you’ve seen the trailer or the film), that premise is warped and exaggerated in shocking caricature. The architact’s ambitious plans for a (nearly) self-contained social Petri dish becomes a cesspool of hedonism and primal tribal instincts. It’s fairly heavy-handed social commentary that doesn’t necessarily add to the utopia-is-a-pipe-dream theme we’ve seen before. That’s not a deal breaker though. The film has some great performances and characterization (Sienna Miller‘s enigmatic Charlotte, Elisabeth Moss‘s pitiful Helen Wilder, and Luke Evans‘s has-been man-child Wilder, in addition to Hiddleston and Irons). The film is visually stunning. So much so, that it suffers a bit from form-over-function. Though the dizzying split focus shots and gorgeous color palettes may be worth the tradeoff. Whether intentionally or not, Wheatley has created a work of art that invokes the likes of Cronenberg and Gilliam in tone and visual asthetic. It features some shocking violence (warning: dog harm) and moral and social quandaries (and A LOT of cigarette smoking). Film fans and genre fans can certainly find something to like in High-Rise, but there may not be enough substance to merit repeat viewings.
The Final Cut: High-Rise is a gorgeous dystopian film, chock-full of heavy social commentary. It’s beauty and solid characters save it from its thin plot and elementary psychology.