Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Disturbing Images, Strong Sexual Content/Graphic Nudity, Language and some Drug Use
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Written by: Amy Jump
(based on the novel HIGH-RISE by J.G. Ballard)
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elizabeth Moss, James Purefoy & Keeley Hawes
A film adaptation of HIGH-RISE has been in the works for decades. The project passed through many hands and was originally thought to be unfilmable. Despite the odds being stacked against him, director Ben Wheatley took the reins of J.G. Ballard’s novel with a screenplay written by Amy Jump (who also happens to be Wheatley’s wife). It should be noted that I had read Ballard’s novel before walking into this movie and I was still taken aback numerous times by on-screen shocks, unforgettable moments, and a consistently uncomfortable tone. This oddball dystopian-ish sci-fi thriller is sure to gain a steady cult following over time, wind up the subject of many film theory essays, and serve as one hell of a unique ride!
Searching for a fresh start in life, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) decides to move into the 25th floor of an illustrious high-rise apartment tower. The building is extravagant in its layout and has everything you could possibly want available within its walls. These accommodations include: swimming pool, roof garden, school, spa, gym, and even, a supermarket. There’s practically no reason to leave and after one man plummets to his death from the 39th floor, residents become more reluctant to venture into the outside world. A class system forms in the building, with the most powerful residing on the highest levels and the poverty-stricken surviving on the lower floors. As the tower deteriorates (frequent power failures, no running water, clogged garbage shoots), so do its residents. The high-rise becomes a forty-story battleground for a literal class war.
HIGH-RISE’s script follows a handful of main characters through various levels, but disturbing deeds and darker than dark humor are equally present in a number of the film’s subplots. The lack of a consistent main story might turn certain viewers off. The film doesn’t give you a likable protagonist, but that’s sort of the point. This is basically LORD OF THE FLIES relocated to a high-rise apartment tower. Speaking of which, this movie’s atmosphere is unnerving in part because it feels like an alternate version of the ’70’s. Completing this illusion are a few tongue-in-cheek song selections, including two covers for ABBA’s S.O.S. (one of which is used to highlight an especially disturbing sequence). The detail put into every inch of the high-rise setting is breathtaking as it seems like you’re gazing into another world, one that’s simultaneously familiar and eerie. One might argue that the high-rise tower itself is the real star of the movie and sets most of the action in motion.
Even though the main character is wealthy and has a medical degree, Tom Hiddleston plays Robert Laing as an everyman. He’s obviously supposed to represent the middle-class and doesn’t necessarily want to get involved with the ever-growing chaos in the building. However, we see his attitude slowly shift as the film moves forward, captured wonderfully in a particularly chilling montage. As Laing’s upstairs neighbor/love interest, Sienna Miller is great as single mother Charlotte Melville. This character wasn’t given too much thought in the novel and has more time dedicated to her here. The same can be said for the characters of lower-class pregnant mother Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss), snobby actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory), and sadistic top-floor resident Ann Royal (Keeley Hawes).
Jeremy Irons is somewhat sympathetic as Anthony Royal, a top-floor architect who stands out from the horde of murderous aristocrats. The most memorable of these high-society monsters is gynecologist Alan Pangbourne, played to teeth-snarling perfection by James Purefoy. Finally, Luke Evans steals every scene he’s in as lower-level Richard Wilder, who becomes a literal social climber as he begins to scale his way to the top of the building. Wilder is arguably the film’s main antagonist and his frequent rage-filled outbursts are equally amusing and frightening to behold.
The structure of HIGH-RISE can be split into two distinct halves. The first half slowly builds tension and unease, while developing the story’s many characters along the way. We see petty squabbles become borderline fist-fights and witness injustices between floors (lower levels suffer from power failures, rich dwellers have a fancy private elevator). Then we get the 39th floor incident (already mentioned in my summary) and things go to hell in a hand-basket. Charlotte notes that “It’s as if everybody suddenly decided to cross some line,” and she couldn’t be more correct. Viewers craving mayhem with manners will find their thirst quenched by sophisticated madness in the last hour.
HIGH-RISE is not necessarily pleasant or easy to watch (nor should it be), but it’s entertaining, thought-provoking, wholly unique, and disturbing as bloodshed is treated with a casual indifference. A child calmly munches on corn flakes whilst watching a man brutally beat another man to death over a bucket of paint. People casually walk by a swimming pool littered with floating corpses. Hulking piles of garbage bags become prevalent in every shot as the building slowly falls apart and many residents decay along with it. Even though I had read the novel before watching this movie and knew what to expect, I was constantly being thrown for a loop in very good ways. HIGH-RISE is definitely not for everybody. People will love it and just as many people (if not more) will absolutely hate it. I imagine that fans of experimental and counter cinema will appreciate the dark genius of this film. I surely won’t forget my visit to the HIGH-RISE and plan on returning many times in the future.