Your response to Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise will depend on your appreciation for the other films in his body of work. Meaning: The less you like them, the more you’ll enjoy High Rise, and vice versa. High-Rise begins with the past tense of Wheatley’s traditional mayhem, settling on tranquil scenes of extensive carnage and brutal violence inflicted before the picture’s start. Dashing Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) wanders waste-strewn halls. He goes to have a drink with his neighbor, Nathan Steele (Reece Shearsmith), who has enshrined a dead man’s head within a television set. Seems about right. But the film’s displays of squalor and viscera are a ruse. Spoken in the tongue of Wheatley, High-Rise is a tamer tale than Kill List or Sightseers.
That isn’t a bad thing, of course, but if you go into Wheatley films anticipating unhinged barbarity, you may feel as though the film and its creator are trolling you here. High-Rise is based on English novelist’s J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, a soft sci-fi dystopian yarn fastened to a through line of social examination. In context with its decade, the book’s setting could be roughly described as “near future England,” and Wheatley, a director with a keen sense of time and place across all of his films, has kept the period of the text’s publication intact, fleshing it out with alternately lush and dreggy mise en scène. If you didn’t know any better, you might assume that High-Rise is a lost relic of 1970s American cinema.
Or maybe you wouldn’t think that at all. Whether he sets his movies in the 17th century or in the present day, Wheatley’s style is modern right down to its referentialism: Among his influences we can count directors like John Boorman, David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam and Stanley Kubrick, named last on this list because too often critics and cinephiles forget that there are other filmmakers in the history of the medium besides Stanley Kubrick. Wheatley is the sum total of their parts, but over the course of directing five features and countless episodes on a handful of television series, he has also developed his own point of view as an artist—even when he’s adapting stories written by another author. High-Rise is Ballard’s book, but it’s Wheatley’s movie.
The film unfolds within the dispassionate concrete embrace of the luxury skyscraper evoked by its title. Our perspective is anchored to Laing (Hiddleston)—doctor, medical lecturer, eligible bachelor and grieving brother—who has moved into the building to escape the world and its myriad inconveniences. Why drive to the grocery store when you can hop on a lift and buy goods from the market nestled within your apartment complex? Why go to the gym when you can just head to the in-house rec center? Why trek to a concert when you can meet celebrities while you shop for produce? The high-rise has it all: Ease of living, colorful inhabitants (played by Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss and Shearsmith). Its architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), has ensured that his tenants have little to no reason to leave other than to attend work, and even that proves a flimsy excuse to depart the tower’s array of pleasures and indulgences.
But like shooting stars, burning hearts and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, some things are too good to last, and before long the structure’s amenities give way to reality: Resources grow scarce, electricity fails on the lower floors and class war erupts between the 99% and the 1%. Wheatley stages the escalation from unrest to open hostility with speed: High-Rise vaults so fast from normal to Lord of the Flies that you’ll wonder if the final cut of the film wound up losing a half hour or so of footage to the cutting room floor. The alacrity of Wheatley’s script, written by his spouse and frequent collaborator Amy Jump, is intentional, though, and in its intention it is cynical, sneering and, thanks to a capstone Maggie Thatcher plug, maybe a bit too obvious. Isolated, or perhaps freed, from the confines of civilized society, we’re all savages, rich or poor, upper crust or commoner. The sequestration of the high-rise gives its occupants opportunities to satisfy their basest instincts without fear of lawful reprisal.
So we come back to Wheatley, violence and expectations. High-Rise doesn’t crush skulls or shatter kneecaps or spill intestines within our periphery. The single most gruesome moment arrives as Laing instructs a band of students on the proper method of breaking down a cadaver head, which is as unsettlingly gross an image as we need from a Wheatley film. Beyond that, the worst stuff happens off screen (though if you are fond of dogs, be warned that the film is not canine-friendly). High-Rise is not interested in physical violence inflicted on the flesh. It is instead interested in mental violence inflicted by those with stature upon those without. In an early scene, Laing shows up at Royal’s penthouse for a costume party, only to be ejected for failing to honor the theme of “French aristocratic dandy.” He looks good, but he doesn’t match the dress code, and so he is booted to a chorus of snickers.
Somehow that beat manages to be twice as vicious as any slaying orchestrated elsewhere in Wheatley’s cinema, and it is telling of High-Rise’s nature. This is a movie of observation, not annihilation, and its exploratory qualities are coupled with Wheatley’s heightened craft—plus a side helping of gallows humor. (Calling the film Wheatley’s cheekiest effort to date might not be saying much, but there you have it.) Another director might have treated High-Rise’s pandemonium as shocking. Wheatley greets it with a smirk.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Reece Shearsmith, Jeremy Irons, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Sienna Guillory
Release Date: May 13, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Movie Mezzanine and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.