This review may show some of my true movie colours and showcase the fact that I really enjoy excessively twisted films. It’s been for a long time really, as The Crow, although not an excessive movie per say but a dark one for sure, was the first to get me to look deeper at the medium. A Clockwork Orange was a new discovery after that and it immediately became my favorite film of all time and I think we can agree, Stanley Kubrick’s classic controversial movie meets the criteria for dark, twisted and totally screwed up. So, when a director makes a film inside this wheelhouse, well, more often than not, it strikes a particular chord with me and I’m usually on the side of praising it. It’s just the way I have now conditioned myself.
Ben Wheatley is a filmmaker who finds himself inside this, for lack of a better term, f***ed up genre, and is on my list of directors of note. Not including the subject of this review, he has made four features, Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England, all pretty well received by critics and definite audience hits. High-Rise is a film that has been getting middling reviews but has a deep aesthetic and horrifying beauty that I picked up on right away. Yes, I’m going to differ from the popular opinion on this film, an ambitious project based on a book deemed unadaptable for decades and maybe that’s why I latched onto it right away.
The story follows Doctor Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a physiologist who moves into a massive high rise building in London. The tower boasts a new way of living by its architect Arthur Royal (Jeremy Irons), a way for all of the class hierarchies to live in one building with all amenities like grocery markets, spas, schools and a swimming pool included. The lower class occupies the lower floors and the rich live in the top levels of the building, which slowly begins to isolate all the tenants, leading them to never need to leave the building. On the outside, the building looks the idyllic product of a good idea and Laing begins to interact with the other occupants including Wilder (Luke Evans), a struggling documentary filmmaker and Charlotte (Sienna Miller). a ravishing single mother living in the apartment above. Laing quickly starts a sexual relationship with her, leading to some animosity with her other jealous wannabe suitors.
When the power malfunctions and gets completely cut off, the class system begins to immediately fray to the accelerated point of societal breakdown and the citizens of the high rise start to completely lose their minds. The rich, unable to shake their expensively flamboyant ways, start to become obsessive with their hoarding and request a stockpile of their survival needs which comically include alcohol, caviar and cocktail onions, proving that they have no ability to take care of themselves. On the other side, the lower class knows how to operate with less and some use the opportunity to get one up on the rich, especially Wilder, who sees this as the perfect spot to blow the architect and his underlings right out of their perch and reveal their seedy truths to all. Within all of this, Laing struggles to keep his life and composure intact and be the sanest man in the high rise, a grip that becomes harder and harder to maintain.
Wheatley’s contrast between the very clean and organized beginning introduction of Laing’s new living space and the building itself to the slow destruction of the entire building is something that is truly jaw-dropping to look at. The breakdown of the people in the high-rise becomes as excessive as Sodom and Gomorrah, as the rich party out of control, drinking and smoking constantly and engaging in “end of days” style orgies making the slow boil of the situation something truly epic in scale. Sometimes, Wheatley combines this contrast into one shot in foreshadowing, like Laing and Royal having a conversation on the lavish rooftop garden with the sprawling bleak construction zones of the architect’s next projects below. Usually, Ben Wheatley’s cinematographer, Laurie Rose, shoots this film with precision that is completely arresting in its pure awesomeness and, for me, it will keep me re-watching this film just to soak it all in.
The psychological, sociological and religious aspects of this film are very intriguing and can lead to deep conversations. The psychology of Laing as he has a draw to both sides of the social conflict. He is a man with stature that only appeals to the rich side with his profession and the two women he cares about, Charlotte and Wilder’s pregnant wife, Helen (Elisabeth Moss), leads him to sympathize with them. Then there’s the whole God complex of the architect, thinking he can dictate how interactions will breakdown by housing all societal structures under one roof, it really is a treasure trove of the human condition.
Called unfilmable by many producers and filmmakers alike, J.G. Ballard’s classic novel sees the realization on the big screen in a grand fashion that is Ben Wheatley’s emergence onto the mainstream film floor with a movie that is anything but the norm. People may be repulsed and disgusted by this film, but I don’t think the story could have been told any differently. Everything comes together in High-Rise to make it an absolutely unforgettable piece of cinema and will make damn sure that all eyes are on Ben Wheatley with his next project. I was astounded by this film and give it a four out of five.