Movie review: High-Rise
Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel about high-rise living takes social metaphor to vertiginous heights
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Running time: 2 hrs
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
Ayn Rand understood the symbolic power of the skyscraper, thrusting its rigid beams into the soft clouds, asserting the technological potency of mankind. But J.G. Ballard goes one further in his 1975 novel High-Rise. He pulls the concrete phallic symbol out of its pants, removing the romantic mystery, and replacing it with cold, hard, and largely unattractive human truth.
High-Rise is a social metaphor in the tradition of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), a high-concept exploration of class dynamics with a surreal, subversive edge.
The edge is the first thing you really feel in this effort from oddball director Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace, Sightseers, A Field in England), because nothing else is all that clear.
We see a dark concrete tower, a parking lot, and the handsome form of Tom Hiddleston stride through the doors of a luxury high-rise. We learn his name is Robert Laing and that he’s a doctor who recently divorced.
His little cell is perched on the 25th floor, where the tenants have access to all the luxury amenities in the building, such as the pool and spa, but this is not a world of equal access. Residents who live higher up have a better view and enjoy more privileges, and the man who would be king of this vertical kingdom is none other than Mr. Royal (Jeremy Irons) – the architect who poured his worldview into every bucket of stacked concrete.
Mr. Royal believes in ranking, social strata and the removal of non-conforming elements to keep a clean line.
When Dr. Laing first moves in, the high-rise looks livable and orderly. It even offers the suggestion of casual sex with fellow residents, including Charlotte (Sienna Miller), the mistress to Mr. Royal.
Yet when elevators take too long, and the kids from lower floors are forbidden from frolicking in the swimming pool, tensions mount. A documentary filmmaker named Wilder (Luke Evans) raises the alarm and takes action, setting in motion a full-on revolution pitting the aristocrats in penthouses against the peasants in second-floor studios.
We can all relate, which is one of the reasons why Wheatley’s film is so disconcerting, and successful, at the same time.
He captures all the unspoken tensions that surround us on a daily basis, whether it’s something as benign as a shared elevator to something as dramatic as an inexplicable urge to jump from a great height.
Every scrap of social unease weasels its way through the heavy doors of High-Rise until the whole building is infested with fear, resentment and violence. In the hands of a genre director, it looks like David Cronenberg’s Shivers. In the hands of Ben Wheatley, it’s black comedy without a net.
Wheatley is more than happy to look down, showing us every hard surface we could hit as he dances on the high wire of cinematic style. Then, he’ll give us some splatter without a hint of remorse.
By the midway point, you can hear the haunting howl in the elevator shaft as all notions of morality are sucked out of the film’s core, leaving us in the company of stressed, selfish, and socially paranoid inhabitants.
Hiddleston is the character we can relate to, and it’s probably no coincidence that his name is Robert Laing – suggesting a connection to noted psychiatrist R.D. Laing, a man who spent his life trying to understand psychosis.
Like his namesake, Hiddleston’s Laing stands removed –an observer to the social descent – until it grabs him by the arm pulls him in. As things get increasingly ugly, it’s hard to remain empathetic. Everyone turns out to be small, petty, jealous, resentful and bitter as they compare their lot to someone else’s.
Human nature has never looked so real and so rancid, but Wheatley handles it all without gloves and traps us inside this aggregate concrete nightmare until we surrender to the vertiginous chaos, and accept the unflattering reflection.
THE EX-PRESS, May 20, 2016