TRAVIS NEWTON: It’s tough to know where to even begin with High-Rise. Based on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel, the film was adapted for the screen by filmmaking partners Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump. This husband and wife team’s previous collaborations include Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England (a recent favorite). Ballard’s novel is a tough piece of literature — not an easy read, but a rewarding one. The film adaptation is much the same: assaultive, messy, and abrasively weird, but worth a watch for the curious.
Tom Hiddleston (in top form) stars as Robert Laing, a teaching doctor at a London medical school. After a family tragedy, the lonely doctor Laing buys a flat in a newly erected London high-rise building, one of five in a new development. Shortly after moving in, he learns that the building (and its inhabits) display some bizarre quirks. The building is a vertical metaphor for a tiered class system: the working class live on the lower floors, the middle floors are a mismatched assortment that have social attachments both above and below, and the top few floors house the decadently rich. The building’s architect, Antony Royal (Jeremy Irons), lives in the penthouse. And though everyone pays the same fees for the conveniences of the high-rise, the lower floors experience more frequent breakdowns and power outages. Then, things get very weird alarmingly quickly.
DREW DIETSCH: There’s going to be a level of oddness with High-Rise that is going to drive casual audiences away in droves. This isn’t a movie that holds your hand in any way, shape or form. While Wheatley’s direction and staging never throw you for a loop as far as comprehending what is going on, he’s not very interested in telling you how to feel or what you should think of certain characters. Practically everyone in this movie does something horrific and unbelievable at some point, but it never prevents them from being a compelling piece of this gorgeously nightmarish puzzle. This is a movie about the things we do in the dark — literally at certain points in the film — and none of that is going to be pleasant.
NEWTON: One of the most jarring things about High-Rise is how casual it is about its weirdness. The residents of the building, including Laing, regard the violent breakouts, looting, and raging parties as something tolerable — so there’s a sense that the film isn’t adequately acknowledging how outright nuts it is. But if it did, Laing likely wouldn’t stick around to see this microcosm’s violent societal upheaval. Why all the residents stay in the building to fight wars against their neighbors isn’t logically explained — it’s all in service of the film’s grand metaphor. The characters and the film around them succumb “to a logic more powerful than reason.” I suppose you really don’t need a better reason to make a film so absurd.
In some ways, the film had to be weirder than the novel to be truer to the spirit of Ballard’s satire, but we must also acknowledge that movies are heightened and exaggerated almost by principle. The film’s dialogue shows to desire to be coy with metaphors. It’s very blunt, but still shows Amy Jump’s trademark cleverness with dialogue. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Hiddleston, Irons, Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy, and Elisabeth Moss are all making the dialogue sound so damn good.
DIETSCH: Having not read the novel, I will admit that High-Rise feels like it’s an adaptation of something denser. There’s a lot of characters in the landscape of the film, and though some of them only receive a passing scene or two, they all manage to make an imprint upon your brain. That’s certainly helped by a perfect storm of talent, anchored by a bewitching and uncomfortably relatable performance from Hiddleston.
In terms of weirdness, I think High-Rise is Wheatley’s most accessible movie to date. His films have always operated on some perverse dream logic, and that’s definitely present this time around but it’s not quite as psychedelic or hallucinatory as some of the logic in A Field in England or Kill List. If this is as close as Wheatley gets to telling a mainstream narrative, I’m more than happy with the outcome.
NEWTON: Director Ben Wheatley and his steadfast cinematographer Laurie Rose stuck together on this film, and I’m glad. It’s Wheatley’s best-looking film to date. The harsh fluorescents and warm, dark hallways of the building glow with a menace that shifts to reflect the state of the movie. The varied sets, all beautiful and strangely ugly, help the building feel real. But the surreal touches, like the lush garden and cottage on the penthouse floor, keep it detached from reality.
But despite its beauty and refinement, High-Rise is an antagonistic, almost nonsensical movie. It’s hard to tell where the plot beats fall, even though screenwriter Amy Jump has imposed some more structure upon Ballard’s narrative. Just as you feel you might be able to start really having fun with the film, something repulsive happens. You may fight it every step of the way. Perhaps that makes the film sound like a failure. I assure you it isn’t. High-Rise is a triumph of weirdness.
DIETSCH: There’s a lot going on in this high concept allegory. It’s a blatant examination of class, society, humanity’s tribal and animalistic nature, and our foolish attempt to fit the inherent chaos of life into some kind of rigid structure. There’s vicious satire, the darkest of comedy, moments of triumphant ecstasy and gut-wrenching horror. High-Rise may be set in a retro-futuristic world, but it’s really a hypnotizing and darkly magical fairy tale like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. It’s not a movie you will “enjoy,” but for me it’s easily the most satisfying and rewarding film of 2016 so far.
High-Rise is now available for rental in the US on most major Video-on-Demand services.