In only a handful of movies, director Ben Wheatley has established himself as one of the most fascinating and unpredictable filmmakers working today. Titles like ‘Kill List’, ‘Sightseers’, and ‘A Field in England’ offer wildly different cinematic experiences that share only the director’s distinct voice. His latest feature ‘High-Rise’ is his first adapted from a novel and initially appears to be unlike anything he’s done before – only at first, of course. Soon it becomes clear that this is just as bleakly funny and deeply twisted as anything he’s delivered to date.
The film is based on a novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard. The book was already an unofficial source of inspiration for David Cronenberg’s ‘Shivers’. (The director would go on to officially adapt Ballard’s ‘Crash’.) The story takes place in a high-rise building organized by class from the bottom floor to the top (no points awarded for guessing who goes where). The psychotic architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives on the top floor and provides everything his residents could possibly need as a social experiment of sorts. Simply put, he hoped everything would go horribly wrong. Tom Hiddleston plays our protagonist, Robert Laing, a doctor who moved into the building to escape a personal tragedy. Shortly after setting up his new apartment, he starts getting invited to parties and meeting the building’s eccentric inhabitants. Later, the parties devolve into class warfare riots. You know, like they tend to do.
The transition from a gently odd world into a wild orgy of sex and violence comes rather unexpectedly. Wheatley sets the film in a vague future that would have been imagined in the 1970s. Carpets and hair tend to shag, while clothing and curtains are colorfully tacky. Everything feels a little off, with characters pitched halfway between literary symbols and sketch comedy types (all played by excellent actors who commit with surprising emotional reality, including Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans and Sienna Miller). Then things just shift into an explosion of wrong. It’s confusing at first, with the film playing out to a more episodic literary structure than conventional film narrative, but it’s supposed to be. Wheatley’s vision of the world is one seconds away from collapse.
‘High-Rise’ can be an alternatingly frustrating and enthralling viewing experience. It’s a deliberately alienating movie that forces viewers into uncomfortable places without easy answers. Confrontational in style, tone, structure and content, it’s easy to imagine many viewers hating it. Even those who love it will do so with reservations. However, there’s something fascinating about the movie. Witty, satirical, shocking and draining, the film is an experience that hits hard and is not easily forgotten. It might not be Ben Wheatley’s best film, but it’s most certainly his own. The guy only seems to be getting more confident and daring with each entry into his career. It’ll be exciting to see what he does next, if only because it’s guaranteed to be unlike anything he’s done before. Plus, it’ll leave a mark on its audience, maybe even a scar.