J.G. Ballard’s disturbing dystopic novel ‘High-Rise’ almost made it to the screen a few times since the cult favorite hit stands in the 1970s. Despite having filmmakers like Nicolas Roeg behind the project, nothing ever came to fruition, and given the difficulty of the subject matter it’s easy to see why. Thankfully, the book finally fell into the capable hands of British director Ben Wheatley, whose fearlessly high-impact approach to filmmaking and sneakily satiric wit were rather perfect for the adaptation.
Some might even say too perfect, given that ‘High-Rise’ is just as difficult as a film as its namesake was as a novel, in good ways and bad. It’s a fascinating movie, but will surely be divisive. I’m sure the late author wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
The protagonist of the story (the word “hero” really doesn’t apply) is Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a doctor who recently moved into a high-concept high-rise apartment. The foreboding cement superstructure contains everything its residents could possibly need within its walls, from supermarkets to swimming pools and anything in between. As designed by semi-psychotic architect Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building is segregated by class, with the lowly workers on the bottom and himself at the top. (What could possibly go wrong?)
Laing ingratiates himself into the community by attending a few of the seemingly never-ending stream of parties. He befriends his mysteriously seductive neighbor Charlotte (Sienna Miller), as well as the very pregnant Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and her raging documentary-producing husband Wilder (Luke Evans), who has a hard-on for every woman that crosses his path and a fist for every man. Tensions mount from the first moment, and soon the building devolves into one big beautiful orgy of sex and violence that would make David Cronenberg proud. (The body horror practitioner did loosely base his debut ‘Shivers’ on this novel and also adapted Ballard’s ‘Crash’.)
Wheatley and his co-writer/editor/wife Amy Jump are remarkably faithful to the text, creating a world that feels like speculative fiction as imagined in the ’70s. Facial hair runs rampant, carpets are shag, colors are brown, and the tone is deeply dire. The film has a cynicism and darkness in play from the opening frames which only deepens as time goes on. The subject is class and the messages aren’t subtle, yet the storytelling is far from straightforward. There’s an attempt at a certain type of dramatic realism in the early going, even if the setting is somewhat surreal. Wheatley and Jump’s previous features (‘Kill List’, ‘Sightseers’, etc.) primarily played as harsh social realism. As the characters here are established, they all fit dramatic types, yet move and breathe as recognizable humans. Then as the story unfolds and the world devolves, things grow more heightened and symbolic. The world turns vicious, nasty and violent. It’s all nightmarishly surreal and painted with pained purpose, while also laced with a sick sense of satire.
This is the type of film where eating a dog is played for demented laughs (hey, it was the first line of the book) and no characters survive the transition into animalistic excess no matter how pleasant they seem. Using budgetary resources never available to him before, Wheatley expands his visual palate beyond handheld realism into something more archly stylized. It’s a beautiful looking movie, especially when the images are at their ugliest. Wheatley has a tendency to wallow in the filth on display, but it’s always with a purpose and always through a cracked lens of harsh dark comedy that hurts.
The performances seesaw from naturalism to deadpan insanity. Led by the immensely amusing Tom Hiddleston, everyone sells the sick jokes of the movie by playing them perfectly straight, if anything committing more deeply as the tale grows in absurdity. There are times when the material gets so disturbing that it’s practically a horror film. However, Wheatley never lets himself become limited by genre or tone. His focus is on fully exploring the novel and reveling in its pitch black class commentary.
The flaws that arrive at least come from the noble intent of staying true to the source. The film’s structure is all over the place, condensing prose and embracing a freeform novelistic storytelling style rather than a rigid three-act confinement. That can be both liberating and frustrating as the movie feels like it rushes through material and lingers formlessly on excess almost simultaneously. It’s also an alienating and assaulting experience that confounds expectations and shocks through taboo, but deliberately so. The book was intended as provocation and Wheatley is hardly a filmmaker afraid of such things, so he prods viewers both viscerally and intellectually without many cozy comforts to offer a break.
‘High-Rise’ will either enthrall viewers with its high-minded filth or leave them feeling cold, like unwanted voyeurs in an unpleasant orgy. For those just twisted enough to have found themselves on Ben Wheatley’s wavelength during any of the previous chapters in his career, it’s a dirty little head trip well worth taking.