by Brody Rossiter
The cinema of British director Ben Wheatley often veers from the strange and peculiar to the sadistic and inexplicable. His disturbed representations of the everyday gone awry have focused upon quaint individuals hiding grim secrets – illusions which eventually consume the surface appearances and reveal an unnerving and often frightening visage.
This time Wheatley and his screenwriter Amy Jump have taken on JG Ballard’s celebrated dystopian tale of a tower block which plummets its residents into a collective breakdown. An animalistic decay of surface portraits quickly ensues and a satirical madness grips floor after floor in a bewildering yet grandiose implosion.
Immediately Wheatley’s penchant for discourse through barbarism is thrust upon the viewer as our narrator and protagonist, Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is found navigating the ramshackle confines of the titular high-rise. His suit trouser legs are rolled to the knee and a makeshift utility belt can be found strapped to his slender waist. He appears as a Robinson Crusoe-esque character, stranded upon the island of his robust concrete balcony attached to his squalid apartment – even the sound of seagulls overhead can be heard. As we watch Laing barbecuing a recently dismembered dog and wading through dark waterlogged hallways, it’s apparent that a societal breakdown has occurred, an isolated apocalypse of sorts which has left Laing stranded amongst the crumbling wreckage of what once was. We quickly learn exactly what came before.
Transported to Laing’s arrival three months prior, the harsh yet luxurious architecture of brutalist tower block shimmers with a freshly installed gleam. Residents pour out of lifts that settle with a gentle bing, and this late-seventies visage of ultra-modernity gracefully powers along with a sense of futuristic efficiency. A societal hierarchy is established as the well-off reside in the upper floors and the less well-off in the lower. The tower’s architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons), rests in the opulent penthouse atop the building, oblivious to the growing unrest below.
Wheatley’s preoccupation to subvert the ordinary has always been bold, yet his visuals remained non-distinct – perhaps to reinforce that sense of perverse mundanity, perhaps due to budgetary limitations. Both incarnations of the tower block are wonderfully developed. Production designer Mark Tildesley and cinematographer Laurie Rose, have craft an immersive and increasingly claustrophobic labyrinth of depravity and danger. Fluorescent lights are replaced candlelight, shag pile carpets are stained with blood and ash, black bin bags are stacked higher and higher and once clinical hallways become darkened passageways littered with lifeless forms. The scenario grows increasingly bleak, yet Wheatley’s penchant for black humour retains a much-needed sense of levity.
As the gripes of the inhabitants dwelling below the building’s bourgeoise collective grow, the swell of anarchy builds and builds before washing through the building in an awesome wave of sex and violence. Wheatley’s narratives typically lurched to toward disquieting revelations and flashes of brutal finality, this time the chaos quickly arrives, only to become increasingly surreal and inescapable.
The bold casting is perhaps the film’s strongest element. Every resident carries with them an engaging tale to tell and a specific role to play in this crumbling society. Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Peter Ferdinando and many more rampage through the building with a gleeful self-serving fluidity, becoming intricate cogs in an altogether mesmeric yet unsolvable puzzle. However, as Hiddleston’s Laing becomes more and more reclusive, sheltering from the madness between which he is sandwiched, his presence also slips from the mind of the viewer. This isn’t necessarily a major issue, as big boisterous personalities steal his limelight, but nevertheless, our connection with him feels diminished, even severed, as other characters’ personal tales of woe unfold and take hold.
High-Rise is an extremely important film for Wheatley, whose previous pictures have repeatedly challenged yet rarely inspired. Despite the ever-increasing sense of chaos onscreen, Ballard’s messages of societal disparity are presented with a great deal of clarity, while effectively being transposed onto the psyches of an audience’s well aware of life in the 21st century and post Thatcher’s Britain. High-Rise is a kaleidoscopic descent into the deepest, darkest recesses of human nature, a sociopolitical satire and a Kubrickian experiment in chaos. As Clint Mansell’s wonderfully evocative score strikes its final note, we realise that while little remains of the towers once resplendent innards, its controlled demolition offered so very much.
The Film: 4.5/5
The Package: 3.5/5
FIW Ratinge: 4/5