By James Hancock May 3rd, 2016
Ben Wheatley is one of a handful of filmmakers alive today who refuses to allow a numb sense of complacency while watching his films. Love him or hate him, if you lay claim to having an interest in contemporary cinema, sooner or later you have to reckon with his work. His new film High-Rise is getting its theatrical release here in the United States on May 13th but I grew tired of waiting for it and decided to go ahead and experience it online where it is already available on a variety of platforms. Based on J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, High-Rise offers a morbidly funny and frequently savage vision of a dystopian future where society is in a state of rapid decline. Set almost entirely in one building, the high-rise becomes a perfect microcosm where every stratum of society inevitably comes into conflict as the grand design of their living conditions begins to reveal its inherent flaws. Offsetting the story is Wheatley’s decision to infuse every detail of the production with a 1970s sensibility, a stylistic choice that makes every frame of this film a genuine pleasure to look at even when our eyes and ears are being subjected to some truly horrific scenarios. Tying the narrative together is a man named Laing played by Tom Hiddleston, easily one of the most charismatic actors working today. His likability is essential to the success of this film. Without him, I feel the movie would have run the risk of becoming a repugnant experience, but Hiddleston is the perfect actor for sustaining our interest through the increasingly bizarre turns of the story as his world collapses around him. A movie of this kind will naturally polarize audiences and I am confident many viewers will genuinely dislike it, but no matter people might think of High-Rise, I can promise that viewers will never be bored from start to finish which is more than I can say for 99% of movies being made today.
High-Rise may be a story about societal decay, but thankfully the film very deliberately avoids any sanctimonious political agenda. Much like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), nobody comes across as particularly noble in this drama. While the different levels of the high-rise are divided based on income, everyone seems to live in an aimless state of total decadence and by the end of the story, abject squalor. The movie begins innocently enough as Hiddleston’s character attends the various cocktail parties around the building and participates in the casual sex and games of squash that are all people really seem to care about. One of the main thrusts of the narrative in High-Rise is the upper class’s horror upon learning that the lower levels threw an amazing party. Refusing to be outdone, they hurl all of their energy into planning the ultimate orgy even as the electricity in the building begins to fail and food starts to become scarce. Jeremy Irons is in fine form as Royal, the architect who designed the high-rise and now rules over the complex like a benevolent dictator. I was never entirely clear on what inherent flaw in his vision causes the building to fail but ultimately the cause of the failure is inconsequential. The movie is far more concerned with human behavior. Chaos and anarchy reign as the residents begin reacting to the garbage piling up in the hallway and the lack of running water. In spite of all the danger signs, however, the festivities continue unabated with nearly all of the residents surrendering to their increasingly base instincts. Madness, random acts of sex and violence, and feasting upon one’s own pets become the norm as the residents struggle to survive. By the end of the film, I was feeling a little drunk on the imagery.
I am still struggling with whether or not I enjoyed this movie as a whole. There are plenty of individual details to be savored. There is one particularly erotic scene between Hiddleston and Sienna Miller that I had to watch for a second time. There is plenty of humor with Luke Evans frequently stealing the show as the absolutely hysterical, brawny force of nature who eventually becomes something of a political agitator. And best of all is the stunning cinematography which makes High-Rise one of the most sumptuous visual spectacles you are likely to see this year. What it boils down to is that High-Rise is an experience. I don’t think director Ben Wheatley gives a damn whether or not his audiences are entertained. As he has proven in the past with movies like Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013), Ben Wheatley wants to stimulate and shock his viewers with stories unlike any ever seen before. Whether or not these stories add up to a positive experience is up for individual viewers to decide. Of the three films of his I have seen, I will say that High-Rise is easily my favorite, proof that his skills as a storyteller continue to evolve. He seems to have all the talent necessary to make an earth shattering film that could define an era. But as impressed as I am with his work, I can’t imagine ever looking forward to attending a Ben Wheatley film festival or binge watching his movies at a retrospective of his work. Watching several of his films back to back just might be what’s needed to push me over the cliff into complete insanity.
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