A dark, divisive social satire with a compelling lead performance at its core.
August 21, 2016
Traipsing through a decaying apartment complex, getting his rotting teeth checked, and munching on roasted dog leg: all part of an ordinary day for Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston). It wasn't always this way though. Just three months earlier, the surgeon was a fresh resident in the gleaming tower, filling his new home with boxes, meeting his neighbours, and talking about starting over with a clean slate. He soon discovers, however, that a strict hierarchy rules the titular structure, and when it starts to falter, so does anything resembling a civilised existence. All it takes is a power outage and an unauthorised dip in a communal swimming pool for classes to clash and all hell to break loose.
Welcome to the world of High-Rise, with director Ben Wheatley and his regular screenwriter and co-editor Amy Jump bringing the dystopian vision of J.G. Ballard's cult 1975 novel to the screen. They're the perfect pair for the task, particularly in light of their previous output. Psychological horror Kill List, murderous black comedy Sightseers and hallucinatory historical thriller A Field in England all examined the bleak and brutal side of the human psyche. If those films aren't the ideal stepping stones towards exploring the mayhem of the masses when left to their own devices, then we don't know what are.
The eponymous property's descent into anarchy runs in parallel to Laing's ascent through its social ranks, though the smooth, suave newcomer proves a friend to those who inhabit all levels. He mingles with seductive single mother Charlotte (Sienna Miller), who lives directly above him, as well as documentary filmmaker Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss), who dwell several stories below. Much to the dismay of the folks that consider themselves at the top of the pecking order, he also befriends Royal (Jeremy Irons), who created the block and resides in its penthouse.
Just as Wheatley and Jump are the best off-screen team to make High-Rise scale the satirical heights its seeks, so too is Hiddleston the ultimate leading man for the job. Managing to lure the audience into the twisted tale while still making sure that his protagonist keeps a little distance from the disorder around him, the actor proves as fascinating a point of focus as the film's true main character: the building itself. Given the attention-grabbing antics that take place within its walls, that's saying something.
Indeed, as the alcohol flows freely, the sex grows more debauched and petty arguments spiral rapidly out of control, everything plays out like a big, bold, busy bash that slowly turns oh-so-sour. With dance sequences aplenty and the increasingly frequent sight of ordinary life turning to the stuff of nightmares, Wheatley ensures that every frame of High-Rise looks the part as well. Whether crafting a quick-cut montage out of carnage and carnality, or switching between a sublime Portishead cover of ABBA's SOS and Clint Mansell's ominous score, the '70s-set film proves a slick but festering affair in its aesthetics and themes from start to finish. It's little wonder that it's also incredibly divisive. If you don't adore the film's deliciously dark and unashamedly scathing depiction of humanity, you'll probably abhor it.