In all the mayhem and carnage of High-Rise one scene in particular stands out. As society teeters perilously close to total collapse, we find Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) brawling over a tin of grey paint during the looting of the supermarket. “It’s my paint!” Laing exclaims as he bludgeons a rival to a bloody pulp. In a comical satire of Black Friday hysteria, the mild-mannered Laing has finally succumbed to the primal urges now coursing through the high-rise. Laing’s moment of madness epitomises the darkly comic and cathartic pleasures of the latest JG Ballard adaptation. Sex and violence are the most basic allures of cinema, and with High-Rise director Ben Wheatley and frequent collaborator Amy Jump have found the perfect structure to house our most elementary desires.
Ballard’s novel begins with one of literature’s great opening gambits: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” The shocking opener naturally entices, but Wheatly and writer Jump’s take perfectly captures the jarring nonchalant normality of the scene. We meet a dishevelled Laing jovially dabbling between routine paper work, spit roasting a dog’s leg and liaising with his clearly insane neighbor. It’s both an arresting and funny start, but most importantly it perfectly sets up the film to explain just how eating your pets become the norm.
Months earlier we find a pristine Laing, embodied by the British gent-of- the-moment Tom Hiddleston, moving into his new dwelling on the 25th floor of a swanky, brutalist high-rise apartment building. As well as being self-sufficient, including a supermarket, gym and pool, the high-rise has a strict hierarchy whereby the richer you are, the higher the floor you reside on. As Laing acquaints himself with his new neighbours, tensions begin to flare up between the lower floors, led by barrel-chested and mutton-chopped Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), and the upper echelons that include the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremey Irons), amongst its ranks. Soon the power begins to falter, refuse chutes start to clog and the lifts fail, leaving civilised society standing on the edge of a 37 floor high precipice.
While Ballard’s 1975 novel concerns itself with satirically dissembling the societal mechanisms of repression cog by cog, Jump and Wheatley are more intoxicated by the decadence and debauchery that accompanies the collapse of high-rise living. Super charged montages loaded with surreal imagery are coupled with Clint Mansell’s rousing classical score, including a particularly sinister reworking of Abba’s SOS, to depict the orgy of destruction and violence.
There’s more than a lick of Kubrick about Wheatley’s full blooded, surreal, imagery. Perhaps the most dreamily bizarre moment, an absurd matching of Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange, comes when Laing is invited to a penthouse soirée filled with pompous guests bursting out of full Georgian regalia. The anachronistic nature of the scene adds another layer of intrigue to High-Rise’s world.
The chaos is relentless, but Wheatley and cinematographer Laurie Rosie’s captivating, ostentatious style prevents the film lapsing into a masochistic celebration of the gratuitous. At some points the POV is such that we’re quite literally looking at the film through a kaleidoscope. It’s with these peculiar angles and perspectives that the camera takes up that perfectly matches the mood of mayhem within the building.
Even the rather gruesome moment a body tumbles from the building on to a car below, the catalyst for the carnage, is portrayed with a poetic beauty as the carcass crumbles in slow motion through the car’s bonnet. Much like Wheatley’s A Field in England, he gives this leap of faith away from sanity a mesmerising quality that elevates it to something special on a dominating cinema screen. At times it feels like we’re Clockwork‘s Alex DeLarge, eyes peeled wide open watching bloody violence; but unlike Alex, desperate to avert his gaze, we can’t take our eyes off High-Rise.
Despite the random violence and rubbish strewn corridors, not dissimilar to the urban dystopia portrayed in Brazil, there’s an allure to High-Rise’s claustrophobic structure. A large dose of black humour, validated by the sardonic presence of Reece Shearsmith, lends the seemingly depraved world an appealing sense of freedom. Wheatley, in true Ballardarian sentiment, manages to make the collapse of organised society comically desirable. High-Rise shows a world void of logic and responsibility. Instead life is dictated by a simple hedonistic freedom that’s impossible not to envy. When Wilder questions the strange lack of a police response it’s a rhetorical observation rather than a genuine query.
Midway through the film, upper floor dweller Simmons (Dan Renton Skinner) absurdly scolds Wilder: “He’s raping people he’s not supposed to and, to top it all off, he sh*t in Mercer’s attaché case.” Delirious moments like these almost had me miss the fact that Wheatley forgoes any concrete character development in his storytelling. The residents of High-Rise suffer from being a largely dislikeable bunch. Most are snide, sinister and immoral and that’s before all hell breaks loose.
Wilder is a rambunctious beast who dominates the film (an excellent turn from Luke Evans) but he’s a nasty chauvinist who despises women even more than his fellow man. Even Laing, who acutely diagnoses the high-rise “as liable to bouts of mania, narcissism, and power failure,” is at best neutral and at worst full blown psychotic. It’s only Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) and her deceptively observant son who garner any sympathy – probably since they don’t cave anyone’s skull amid the carnage. The formidable cast all provide memorable stops through High-Rise’s free-falling adventure; it’s just a shame there’s no investment to protect during the chaos.
Wheatley’s film never manages to critique capitalism, class and consumerism with the depth or vigour of Ballard’s original text, attested to by the film’s tokenistic use of a Margaret Thatcher speech on free trade in the finale. One of the film’s major flaws is Wheatley’s impatience to reach total anarchy. One second it’s squabbling over utility costs, the next minute it’s kidnapping and murder. This rush to take the express lift rather than the stairs limits the opportunity to build truly investable characters or complicate the social criticism. Yet these aren’t structurally crippling issues for the film; no, these are “merely teething issues,” as Anthony Royal would say.
High-Rise is such a joyous, funny, mad and memorable climb to the dizzying heights of decadence. Ballard’s novel is a filmmaker’s dream and Wheatley has seized the opportunity with all the gusto of Dr Laing clinging on to his precious paint tin for dear life.
Movie Verdict: Win