3 / 5 stars
What better place to witness the de-evolution of man than a 1970s luxury apartment building? That’s the surreal premise of High-Rise, director Ben Wheatley’s legitimately wild adaptation of the novel from cult writer J.G. Ballard (The guy who wrote Crash. No, not that one. This one, the David Cronenberg classic.) High-Rise is a comic nightmare that lavishes its viewers with smart, unrelenting design, but also asks for a meter of patience as well.
It’s not a tough ask considering the movie’s surrealistic core. Wheatley, reteaming with talented Sightseers contributor Amy Jump, builds a nifty little insular society inside the titular building, and then tears it down with psychedelic glee.
Tom Hiddleston plays the newest tenant, Dr. Laing, a physiologist with a steel stomach during dissections and no motivation to ever unpack. He instantly ingratiates himself amid the finer apartment parties (25th floor and above, of course), loud, slinky shindigs that reveal a colorful group of residents (including an enormously pregnant Elisabeth Moss, who’s lovely and valuable, as usual).
At the height of it all – literally – is the eccentric man (Jeremy Irons) who’s designed the series of buildings, and his emotionally stunted wife who imagines herself as a storybook figure, complete with costuming and live horses. Here’s where Wheatley and Jump’s taste for the surreal starts to kick in, leading the way for a building class war that gets more bizarre and violent as the film continues.
The visuals, from veteran production designer Mark Tildesley (28 Days Later, The Constant Gardener), are exceptional, a crazed celebration of excess within a series of enclosed spaces. There’s the building, of course, the apartments, the stacks of boxes in Laing’s apartment, even the smallish TV set that plays one of the tenant’s news broadcasts. There’s a dedication to this theme and its consistent craziness, and some superb editing, but it can start to wear thin on the nerves after a while. That’s both good and bad, depending on the experience you’d like High-Rise to deliver.
Why doesn’t anyone in this building leave? Well, why didn’t anyone leave a Buñuel dinner party in 1970s cinema? Practicality has no place in High-Rise – the film is here to make a point about the extremes of status, and play with the expectations of civility and money. The darkness is far more biting than fun (drowning a dog tends to set that tone), and that should come as no surprise to fans of Wheatley’s previous films – I’m certainly one – especially Down Terrace and Sightseers.
The building deteriorates into a shithole and things get awfully vicious and bloody, while Hiddleston holds it all together as the protagonist. He keeps Laing’s personal horrors and foibles just beneath the surface while building him into a maniac survivalist. The acting is fine as High-Rise takes a turn for the more artistic, a series of well-composed montages of urban horror, lost souls shredding their decency for power. It’s like Lord of the Flies with a squash court and shag carpeting. And while it won’t be for everyone’s palate, it’ll certainly leave a distinct taste in your mouth.
Screened in the Narrative category at the 2016 Independent Film Festival Boston.