With all the comforts and amenities of modern life, it would seem as if we’re heading closer and closer to a world of leisure and pleasure. With smart phones, the wealth of the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips and instantly available for whatever question may pop into our head. But what if all of these luxuries are just a means to reinforce preexisting class structure? What if all these amenities begin to fail? Those are the questions that arise when watching Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, the British filmmaker’s adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard. This is a film that toes the line between futuristic and retro in its examination of the social structure as defined by class and luxury. High-Rise is a rousing social commentary unlike any other to grace the screen this year, and one likely to be very divisive among viewers.
Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has just moved into the concrete palace of the high-rise. The building, which was constructed by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), is a monument to modern living, with all the amenities one could imagine located within the walls of the concrete cathedral to modernism. Living just above Laing is Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a single mother with a habit of excessive indulgence. A few floors below is the married couple of Richard (Luke Evans) and Helen Wilder (Elizabeth Moss), though Richard seems to always have his eyes placed upon women who are not his pregnant wife. Those living on the upper floors of the high-rise have preferential social status and get to enjoy the amenities more freely than the residents of the lower floors. Soon, though, the simple luxuries fail to work properly, followed by the necessities of modern living. At first, these only affect the lower floors but it’s not long before the whole high-rise is plagued with problems. As the features of the building break down so, too, does the social structure, as social status takes a backseat to survival and hedonistic pleasures. What was once a monument to modernism becomes a mausoleum for all of its failings.
High-Rise would make one hell of a double feature with Snowpiercer, effectively operating as an unofficial prequel. Unlike Snowpiercer, High-Rise doesn’t really contain a conventional narrative with heroes and villains in its examination of class structure. Almost from the first scenes, High-Rise is about a secluded society in a slow decline. What starts as simple problems quickly elevate into a full blown colony collapse. In this world, everything builds on a foundation of class and when that’s undermined in even the slightest way, it signals the fall for this house of cards.
The script by Amy Jump shies away from convention in more ways than one. For instance, we have little understanding about what Hiddleston’s Dr. Laing wants, because this isn’t a movie about a character achieving his goals, instead it’s about his front row seat for the destruction of this ecosystem. More often than not, the characters of High-Rise are guided by selfishness. It’s only after the collapse that these people shed their proper facades and wholly embrace their hedonism. Meanwhile, Wheatley’s stellar direction emphasizes all the story beats with strong visuals. Among the most powerful of the images in High-Rise is on the rooftop of the massive structure, its top a luscious green preservation yet everything surrounding it is drab and gray concrete. As if pushing away any aspect of nature is a necessity to the modern world and the retention of plant life is an opulent luxury for those on the top.
As he’s proven time and time again, Tom Hiddleston is just a force on the screen. He’s cool and suave here, with a certain element that’s detached from the structure of the world he inhabits. If any actor is going to be your guide through a world as brazenly bizarre as the one of High-Rise, there’s no better person to show the way than Hiddleston. Of course, Hiddleston isn’t alone in excelling in High-Rise. Jeremy Irons is given a meaty role as the architect of the demented structure, and the veteran actor blends the character’s hubris and optimism into a remarkably deep character. Sienna Miller and Elizabeth Moss are each excellent as two very different types of women, each confined by the rigid class structure. Most surprising is Luke Evans as Richard Wilder. Whether through voodoo or black magic, Evans basically morphs into the ‘70s era Oliver Reed with a performance that is masculine and wounded, boisterous and intimidating. As Evans was on the screen, my thoughts kept going, “My god, he’s resurrected Oliver Reed!”
From its production design by Mark Tildesley to the cinematography by Laurie Rose, High-Rise has a wonderful look. Taking place in no specific time, High-Rise still has a look that could be categorized as retro with a feel that is somewhat futuristic. By avoiding making High-Rise conform to any particular time and place it keeps the film feeling strikingly relevant throughout its two-hour runtime. Even when the film gets remarkably ugly in its content with some dark aspects of sex and violence, there’s still amazing images of design and shot composition to stare in awe at.
As he’s done with features like Sightseers and A Field in England, Ben Wheatley once again proves that he is a rising talent in the world of cinema, one capable of grappling with large and complex themes and beautiful artistry even when the content is ugly. High-Rise is a film that reflects modern society and takes us to places that we might not be comfortable exploring. Of course, there are going to be many who claim that the film will have been overrated because it didn’t meet their expectations, and that’s perfectly fine. High-Rise isn’t a movie that’s for everybody. For those willing to follow Wheatley down the concrete corridors of High-Rise will find a film without peers, one about the ugly side of humanity and society. The decline of Western civilization never looked so damn good.