High-Rise (Film Review)

Ben Wheatley is an insanely cool and focused filmmaker, his movies treading that delicious line between high-brow arthouse fair and primal batshit-crazy entertainment. Which is just my flamboyant way of saying that they’re both intelligent and engaging as hell.

He’s made five feature-length films thus far (as well as directing a couple of Doctor Who episodes, one segment in The ABCs of Death, and the awesome music video for the Editors’ song, Formaldehyde), and each one is as refreshing and varied as the last.

His debut, Down Terrace (2009), is a quiet, clever, nasty little crime film with a micro budget, highly original script, and tight focus on family machinations, with a sharpened edge of black comedy. It’s probably the least-known of Wheatley’s work but I highly recommend it.

Kill List (2011) is a near-masterpiece that starts out as a claustrophobic examination of a hitman’s suburban family life, but soon descends sharply from one last lucrative job into a terrifying folk-horror nightmare.

Sightseers (2012) is probably one of the blackest comedies I’ve ever seen, a hilarious and utterly disturbing film that follows a deranged couple’s caravan journey-cum-killing spree across Britain.

An unravelling of hallucinogenic arthouse weirdness is the only way I can describe Wheatley’s disturbing period folk horror, A Field in England (2013). Probably his least accessible film but still a knockout of visuals, dialogue and suspense, it’s a story of alchemy, treachery and violence that plays out in a single location with a small (and dwindling) group of actors. It’s definitely a film that demands repeat viewing, but I’d probably say the same of all those previously mentioned, as well as Wheatley’s latest, and largest, film.

Like a lot of his work, High-Rise has been divisive to say the least. An adaptation of JG Ballard’s cult 1975 novel of the same name, the film follows the residents of a self-contained tower block as it descends from this glossy ordered world (complete with supermarket, school and swimming pool), into class warfare and human degradation. We see this microcosmic unravelling of civilisation through the eyes of several characters, primarily Tom Hiddleston’s Doctor Robert Laing, Luke Evans’ leery, Neanderthal-esque Wilder, and Jeremy Irons’ grand architect, Anthony Royal.

Speaking of which, what an incredible British cast, which is supplemented by Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Reece Shearsmith, Sienna Guillory, and Peter Ferdinando, all of whom are excellent, and clearly not afraid to get their hands – and all other body parts – dirty.

Wheatley has been mostly faithful in his translation of the book, working from a script by frequent collaborator and wife, Amy Jump. There are a few tweaks to the source material, but nothing apocryphal. I enjoyed the book when I read it, but found that it was hard to maintain focus on something that was basically an extended ramble of escalating violence and other aberrant behaviour. My fanboy hysteria for Wheatley aside, I was interested to see how successfully and/or faithfully this kind of material could be adapted to the big screen. Watching this film feels like being trapped in a madman’s head, and I don’t doubt that that was at least in the vicinity of the director’s intentions, not to mention Ballard’s. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but don’t go expecting any kind of cohesive narrative or conventional cause-and-effect structure with High-Rise. Both book and film are largely devoid of plot, and actually I feel like this kind of story works far better as a film, especially in this director’s hands.

High-Rise’s is an A to B plot in the sense that it marks a trajectory from the roof (A) to the gutter (B). It’s simple, and enormously effective in the way the descent is portrayed with all the visual and aural cues that surround the more obvious elements of depravation and degradation.

From the opening shots, Wheatley establishes an awesome rhythm of colour, movement and sound. There’s a vibrant busyness in every frame. So much is going on at all times but the camera doesn’t linger on any one thing for too long, instead subjecting the audience to a hubbub of fleeting moments. This, along with a 70s colour scheme that almost nauseates, adds to the increasingly schizophrenic atmosphere. Little things, too, add to the overall effect. The sky progressively reflects the overall mood, shifting from vibrant gold sunsets to an inclement monochrome. The lighting and the colours change, too, darkening and spreading.

Like Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s classic (and enormously overrated, but that’s another story) horror The Shining, there’s a sense from the beginning of High-Rise that this isn’t so much a slow descent into madness, as the madness seems already inherent, waiting just beneath the surface for its moment to emerge.

Clint Mansell’s predictably brilliant score softens the film’s edges in a way, adding an almost mocking, maybe ironic lightness. At first, anyway. As the violence increases and the etiquette crumbles and as the clouds outside swell grey with rain, the music takes a much darker tone. Every element of this film is in sync with every other; Wheatley has created a flourishing and perfectly balanced ecosystem, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness.

Unlike a lot of films of this ilk, there isn’t really a central relationship or character fighting against the status quo – or destruction thereof. Nobody is immune, and all give in, often casually, even gleefully, to this shedding of inhibitions. A kid scratches the word “arss” onto a table and his mother tells him with a nonchalant tone, “That’s not how you spell arse, darling.”

Interactions between the characters are fleeting and often brutal, boiled down to sex, bloodshed or some primal clan mentality. About halfway through the film a character claims that, “We’re all bio-robots now. We can’t live without the equipment we surround ourselves with. Cameras, cars, telephones.” But as the building starts to deteriorate, and the madness and violence escalates, the film proves him wrong. Society degenerates into a primitive hunter-gatherer structure as everybody settles into a kind of self-contained post-apocalypse within the building.

High-Rise is a masterful creation that shimmers with the talent of its director, its cast, and everyone else involved in its production, but to me it also feels like something I’m on the edge of really “getting,” if only I could grasp that last piece of the puzzle. Also, watching humanity at its flabby, bloody ugliest does lose some of its appeal as the film progresses. This is far from a deal-breaker, though, and it’s a refreshing change to watch something as different and textured as this. The ending, too, depicts a really interesting power-shift that’s subversive and weighty without being ham-fisted or glaring in its execution.

At the end of it, High-Rise has been beautifully, painstakingly made on every level, I’m just not sure if I enjoyed it to quite the same heights as Wheatley’s previous films. But I’ve only watched it once so far, and that will likely change with more viewings. It’s definitely something I want to re-watch, and that can only be a good thing. Either way, this is another interesting and original entry on Wheatley’s increasingly impressive CV, and I’ll be first in line to see more of his work.

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