When a movie opens with its lead eating a neighbourhood dog amidst the post-apocalyptic ruins of a destroyed apartment building you know you’re in for an unconventional time. When that movie stars mainstream (anti-)hero Tom Hiddleston (best known as Loki from Thor) then it’s also bound to inspire strong reactions from mixed crowds, as it did at TIFF this year when it prompted walkouts during its premiere.
The screening I saw enjoyed a more favourable reaction, though High-Rise was not as rapturously received as previous films by British auteur Ben Wheatley. Perhaps that’s because Wheatley, having cut his teeth on more straightforward gangster pics like Down Terrace and gotten progressively weirder with each film, seems patently unable to repeat himself and determined to stretch what cinema can do with each successive genre mashup he unleashes upon the world.
Following on the heels of Wheatley’s 2013 effort A Field In England (a mind-bending black-and-white mushroom trip into the dark souls of some wayward 17th century British soldiers) comes High-Rise, an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name. Wheatley’s kept the period setting of 1975 and distilled it here through a glossy magazine-like look that feels at once artificial and altogether sterile. This has the jarring effect of contrasting with the utter debauchery that the film eventually depicts.
The opening teases that chaos and then goes back a few months to show the building in happier times, just as residents are first moving into the gleaming superstructure. Hiddleston plays Laing, a young doctor whose introduction to the high-rise serves as the audience’s as well. Laing dissects human heads at work but comes home to a curiously empty apartment – he’s an enigma hiding some past trauma, and a blank slate onto which the movie can project its theories.
Laing straddles the two social stratas of the high-rise, including the arrogant socialites who live above him and the teeming masses below. It’s a pretty obvious metaphor for society but the devil is in the details that Wheatley peppers the film with. Laing gets visits the penthouse-dwelling architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) through a connection with Royal’s mistress Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and is welcomed into the upper levels, but always as an outsider who’s kept at a remove.
Floors below he also mingles with documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his harried wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss), trading opulent soirées for parties full of screaming kids and frenzied day drinking. That’s the central frisson of the film – the divide between the have and the have-nots. And as the bright and shiny but ultimately poorly made building slowly begins to break down, losing power and falling short of supplies, the residents increasingly choose sides as everyone in the high-rise devolves into animalistic versions of themselves that have regressed towards their basest instincts.
High-Rise presents the decline as inevitable and the accompanying social commentary is ever-present but not particularly subtle. Most of the surprises come in the form of gruesome violence visited upon the characters or in beautifully staged shots that can nearly stop the movie cold with their audacity. A horse runs free atop a secluded rooftop, a man falls 40 floors to his death, a drunken Wilder crashes a high society pool party with a coterie of feral kids, residents fight over the heavily branded food items, and the world burns.
The production design shines and the score by Clint Mansell (a frequent collaborator of Darren Aranofsky’s) heightens the drama even further. The performances are mostly at a fever pitch, though Hiddleston is reserved as Laing but eventually unleashes his id and joins the rest of the crazed high-rise dwellers. There’s little narrative meat to bite into as the movie instead swirls and twists with elliptical scenes that evoke societal collapse through never-ending dinner parties and utter depravity.
The sense of exhaustion becomes palpable, and at nearly two hours the movie’s point is beaten home. But you can’t fault Wheatley for not throwing it all up on the screen, as High-Rise is a rare beast of a film – a likely future cult classic that will have audiences wondering how it got made and thankful it did. It’s gonzo filmmaking with a fine pedigree, a purebred that will chew through your house and destroy everything in it.
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Runtime: 112 minutes