Ben Wheatley film

HIGH-RISE Review: Stunning but Ugly

Monday, May 16, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss
Rating: Two-and-a-half stars out of five

Available in limited release and on demand

Have you ever spent a long evening with a charming but pessimistic drunk? The conversation is compelling, sure, but it veers, guided by little more than a foggy rage at the way of the world. To that drunken companion, everyone is stupid, or evil, or both. “They” definitely all deserve the worst things that are coming their way, even if your upset (and upsetting) friend can’t articulate why. There are fleeting pockets of insight into real wrongs perpetrated by society, but they are quickly swept up in grand displays of ineloquent frustration and arm-waving, and you’re left checking your watch, hoping in vain that last call will arrive mercifully.

High-Rise is that friend. Director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump take J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel and toss layer upon layer of stylish nihilism atop it. But the bleakness rarely comes from anywhere but anger in the pit of its characters’ guts, leaving humanity as a one-trick pony of fury. The message is, “The human race is vile, so let’s gawk at (and wallow in) its vileness.”

It leads to a film that is actually flawed in the way Stanley Kubrick was falsely accused of being during his career. Like what Kubrick’s detractors said about his work -- a visual and thematic touchstone for Wheatley -- High-Rise is cold and removed from the lives of its characters, tut-tutting their base desires as disgusting and animalistic, denying the possibility that these people might have other elements to their personalities than jealousy and bitterness. Its distance from its characters’ humanity leaves nothing but violent shells acting out aggression with little or no provocation. It doesn’t even have fun watching its protagonists’ world devolve into chaos -- it seethingly wishes for the destruction so it can be proven correct about humanity’s worst impulses. It rarely bothers to learn the things that make these people tick beyond (maybe) one line of dialogue describing recent events in their lives.

That’s the case with Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston, Thor), a brain specialist mourning the death of his sister, who moves to an apartment in the midsection of a newly constructed high-rise somewhere in England. The setting appears to be both the near future and the kitschy 1970s rolled into a bizarre timeless nowhere place. Brutal modernist design gives the first indication that this is a place ripe for degradation. It is a place not worth loving, constructed wholly out of a pursuit of efficiency, practicality, and social engineering. It is crammed full with every walk of life, who are concerned with nothing else but partying and conducting violent acts.

Befitting our 99 percent vs. one percent times, the richest of the rich prance about the top floors of the apartment complex, throwing elaborate powdered-wig costume balls and scoffing at the lowly middle-class neighbors who adorably think they might be able to climb the social ladder. The middle-class characters, especially Luke Evans as a documentary filmmaker named Wilder, are filled with resentment at the rich and wracked with anxiety about an impending loss of what “little” they already have. The actual poor are nowhere to be seen, unless bored grocery cashier Fay (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin) counts -- she could just as easily be the teenage daughter of a middle-class family working her first part-time job.  

The high-rise is almost entirely self-sufficient, and it only grows increasingly more insular as power outages increase in frequency and the party vibe turns sour. The apartment building is going through growing pains, to paraphrase characters like Jeremy Irons’s architect. The building itself becomes ill, as its systems break, black bags of trash pile up, and its inhabitants/parasites eat away at it. Wheatley and cinematographer Laurie Rose film this breakdown with long tracking shots and boxy framing, letting the ‘70s colors pop almost as if they are from a comic book of the era. Wheatley and writer Jump collaborated on the film’s editing, too, which is dreamy and wavy, at times wholly immersive.

But immersion in a dream only holds together for so long. The reason most people wake up in the morning and tell their partners or coworkers of the “weird dream” they had the night before is because they are trying to make sense of the senseless information processing the brain goes through as it resets for another day. High-Rise operates on this level almost exclusively. Characters flit in and out to serve multiple roles in Dr. Laing’s descent into grief-stricken madness. At most they have attitudes, which are different from motivations. Cause and effect are nearly totally foreign concepts to Wheatley’s film, which seeks instead to create an impressionistic portrait of class warfare.

The details of how such warfare begins aren’t important to the film, but they are important concepts for story construction. High-Rise coasts on trippy imagery and surface impressions rather than building reasons for these classes to clash. There is one event in the middle of the film, a moment of self-destructiveness, that sparks the anarchy of the second half. But the film gives no reason for why anyone in the ensemble should care about it. The middle-class citizens would be more likely to cheer this moment than grow angry because of it. The rich are given no evidence to make them believe this event was anything other than what it looks like. Nobody even tries to take advantage of the moment to push their own agenda -- they were always going to turn into animals. Nobody acts like a fully formed human being because the film doesn’t have faith in them to be anything other than a collection of aggressive instincts.

That anti-humanist motif makes High-Rise nearly impenetrable on a moral level. Combined with its lack of interest in crafting a traditional narrative, it becomes a tedious collection of emptily beautiful sequences on the way to an ending that does not represent the end of an arc. It does not arrive at its bleak, nihilistic conclusion after a long journey. It just confirms its own cynicism, which existed from the beginning. “I told you so” is rarely a satisfying storytelling experience.

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