In 2011, Ben Wheatley proffered one of the horror genre’s best new finds in Kill List. In this sophomore feature, Wheatley showed a fierce command of the film medium, creating a dizzying religious parable set among a world of violent crime and ethereal justice with dreamlike sadistic cults operating levers best left unmolested. And though Kill List fit most easily into the horrorscape because of its acrid use of bloodshed and razor wire tension, it also established a director predominantly preoccupied with splicing genres together. He did so again with 2012’s brilliant black comedy Sightseers, blending elements of horror and dark English satire, and once more in 2013’s wildly experimental, black and white historical drama/“horror” film A Field in England, though to lesser effect.
Wheatley is back at work grafting genres together with High-Rise, an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s celebrated 1975 novel of high society’s descent into tribal warfare. Penning the remodel, real life wife Amy Jump reteams with Wheatley to provide the architecture for their fourth collaboration together, though her script is less a thing of conversation than of unspoken thematic ebbs and flows. Also back is Wheatley’s frequent cinematography Laurie Rose who lends the scene work an unsettling visual palette plump with corpses and chaos.
A glimpse of the future through the lens of the swinging 60s, Wheatley’s High-Rise begins at the end. Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) confesses that he enjoys life in the high rise, a littered scourge of a once-great empire turned wasteland, complete with disfigured cadavers and collections of black trash bag mountains. His comfort with such grisly crudities, the aftereffect of a life spent “peeling off facial masks” and lobotomizing skulls with the dull crack of a hammer. Laing pets a white Alsatian. The next scene, he’s spit-roasting its leg over a crackling fire.
Wheatley rewinds time to when things were more orderly. Or at least appeared to be so. Dr. Laing has just moved into the eponymous high-rise, a state-of-the-art housing complex fitted with all the luxuries of a 5th Avenue Strip Mall. Workout facilities, grocery stores, restaurants and even schools all create the ideal condition for those not wanting to leave their comfy living space. Ever. A confessed loner, Laing nonetheless finds himself tossed between the important players of the building, including a shapely and well-informed debutante (Sienna Miller), a barbarian alcoholic (Luke Evans) and his very pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss) and the affluent architect who conceived of the very building they’ve found themselves holed up in, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons).
Royal has designed his superstructure as if an Egyptian Pharaoh. Correspondingly, its monolithic stature is one of imposing might, photographed at various angles and conditions. His brooding edifice is categorized by class with the upper echelons populating the top stories, the professionals filing out the middle and the “lower” classes relegated to the bottom sections. As it is with all things, cream rises.
Between lavish, eccentric parties – including garish, antiquated dress and plutocrats trotting their lily white horses through rooftop gardens – and technical maladies that render portions of the building inoperable, a tizzy of social unrest erupts and turns to all hell breaking free. This sociopolitical volcanic activity hones in on timely issues of class warfare, capped with a science fiction dystopian bent, that operates on a visceral level without truly offering anything of great narrative depth. This state of chaos implodes into a visual cacophony, set to pounding house music, that dance and flicker on the screen to create arresting tableaus. But, reiterating, when those images and themes are stripped away, there is nothing substantive to either the narrative or its characters.
At a critical juncture, Luke Evans’ Wilder accuses Hiddleston’ Laing of being emotionally detached. High-Rise is similarity emotionally detached. Jump’s “stand back and observe” sensibilities create characters who are difficult to read and often even more challenging to engage with. No one character, particularly Laing, is represented as a heroic or villainous figure so much as they all are archetypes drifting through the onslaught of savage societal deterioration. We don’t know them, we just know their “type”. One issue that’s never addressed, and probably purposefully so, stands out more than most: why do these people never just up and leave the towering concrete jungle? Why endure such savagery and rampage when the rest of the world is just a window pane away? So many “whys?” and so few answers.
As has always been the case, Wheatley does his own editing work and his efforts here are decidedly slag. Weighing in at girthy two hours, High-Rise may greatly benefit from a celluloid haircut. And though my complaints pertaining to the narrative and character aspects of High-Rise are many, there is durability to Wheatley’s feature that defies classification. As a gut-punching visual collage, High-Rise thrives on its somber unspoken visuals, even when its script proves frustratingly tightlipped. Kaleidoscopic (at points literally so) in form, High-Rise attempts to capture the subversive genius of Cronenberg’s Shivers or Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange but lacking the story-studs to bring everything home, it comes up well short.
CONCLUSION: Ben Wheatley has stumbled upon something strangely salient with dystopian protest piece ‘High-Rise’ but the creeping chronology fails to drive the action forward, creating something that’s both busy and unfocused and carving a path of narrative stagnation that cannot live up to its dark visual flourishes and generally unnerving mood.