The director Ben Wheatley is a natural fit for High-Rise, a retro-futurist black comedy based off a dystopian novel by 1970s counterculture writer J. G. Ballard. With his tendency for hallucinogenic visuals (sometimes literally as in the case of A Field in England) and distinctly British preoccupations, Wheatley is unquestionably the right man to bring this strange British story to the big screen. That being said, the end product is more than a little baffling. It’s Wheatley’s slickest film, but like his earlier efforts, it shifts wildly in tone and meanders a bit in the middle. It might be a future counterculture classic, but it’ll take multiple viewings to really pin down what Wheatley’s up to here.
High-Rise stars Tom Hiddleston as Dr. Robert Laing, a young doctor who moves into a brand-new high-rise apartment on the edge of London. The building is structured according to class, with the poorer residents, such as Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss’s Richard and Helen Wilder, living on the bottom floor, and the rich residents, such as Jeremy Iron’s architect who designed the building, living at the top. As tensions mount between the tenants on the top floors and the tenants on the bottom, Laing finds himself in the midst of a class war, as the building descends into total anarchy.
The tone of High-Rise is pitched somewhere between black comedy and dystopian tragedy. Images of the brutalities and debaucheries of the upper class are chilling—for instance, later in the film they start stealing the wives of the lower residents to use as slaves—but there’s also an ironic detachment to the film’s depictions of injustice. Wheatley isn’t interested in making the viewer outraged. Like Hiddleston’s Laing who’s stuck in the middle of the building, detached from either end of the class spectrum, the viewer is equally detached from the characters. Laing is our window into this world and Hiddleston is very good at playing the character as enough of a blank slate to let the viewer project onto him, while also being his usual charming self. But he’s not our object of sympathy. Evans’ Richard and Moss’s Helen fare better, as their disadvantaged position in the building has a built-in sympathetic draw. Evans’ Richard in particular is a conflicting character; he’s both a lecherous bruiser and a lower-class crusader. Evans has a special talent for physically dominating the screen—he’s a bit of an acting bulldozer—and he’s High-Rise’s most welcome surprise, but even then, he’s not the film’s hero.
This thematic and narrative ambiguity is where High-Rise gets tricky. Wheatley seems to be critiquing English classism and how technological innovation can affect class discrimination, but he’s also playing at other themes that are harder to elucidate. For instance, every resident of the building is white, but this fact goes uncommented on for the entire running time. Such an attentive director as Wheatley wouldn’t have deliberately made the film so overwhelmingly white if he didn’t have a reason for this, but as it stands, what that reason is remains elusive.
All that’s truly clear about High-Rise is that it’s gorgeously filmed and hilarious. If Wheatley’s vision is hard to pin down, his talent for grotesquerie and black comedy remains unimpeachable. High-Rise could be a great film, or it could be an opaque failure, but I tend to believe it’s probably more of the former than the latter.
7 out of 10
High-Rise (2015, UK)
Directed by Ben Wheatley; written by Amy Jump based off the novel by J.G. Ballard; starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, and Jeremy Irons.