“I think the future will be boredom interrupted by totally unpredictable periods of volatility. I expect the world’s great suburban sprawl to be constantly rippled by all kinds of outbursts of activity, like the tragedy at Waco. What I predict are these outbreaks of psychopathy. We won’t be able to predict these, and they may provide a necessary role, a little roughage in the social system,” author J.G. Ballard told Sci-Fi Universe in 1995. His ideas as such are not far removed from his novel “High-Rise,” published in 1975, and now arriving on the big screen forty years later. This tale of disorder and disarray may be absurdist, but in an era of unprecedented gaps between rich and poor, its vision of class warfare has never been more resonant. However, screenwriter Amy Jump and director Ben Wheatley are less concerned with the message than with the madness, and their resulting picture is heavier on style than substance.
Set in a reto-futurist version of the 1970s, Tom Hiddleston leads the picture as Dr. Robert Laing, the latest resident of the titular high-rise. Seeking a fresh start from a vague but painful past, he quickly becomes acquainted with building’s rigid rules of division. The floors from the ground up house the lower classes, the center, in which Laing finds himself, is for the middle class, and as you have surely guessed, the higher reaches are for the upper class. Above them all in the penthouse suite is Anthony Royal, aka The Architect (Jeremy Irons). He’s the designer of the building, which he aspires to be a “crucible for change,” yet he doesn’t realize the nightmares his wish will conjure.
“High-Rise” doesn’t have a plot so much as an escalating mood of slowly unwinding chaos. At all levels, the building’s residents have a growing list of grievances, and these tensions spark into action, thanks to a brace of power outages and to the slowly expanding footprint by those at the top on the rights and avenues of movement by those at the bottom. Wheatley doesn’t connect the dots leading to the outbursts of sex and violence that eventually overtake the entire high-rise, but instead embraces the spirit of anarchy in the quickly evolving clashes between floors, but perhaps the most dangerous man of all is the one calmly in the middle: Dr. Laing.
“It takes a certain determination to row against the current,” might be the closest thing to a thesis statement in the film, while a clip from a speech by Margaret Thatcher articulating her views on state capitalism and the effect on democracy adds a bit more thematic weight. The filmmakers don’t seem inclined to make any grand pronouncements, but Laing’s seeming neutrality as he watches those around him become bloodied, beaten and killed is nearly psychopathic in its tranquility. He runs in sharp contrast to the muckracking Wilder (Luke Evans), who attempts to make a documentary on the proceedings inside the high-rise, and Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), who holds a few slinky, seductive secrets of her own. But Laing prefers eking out his own self-sufficient path, and he becomes more deadly than anyone else in the building, because he only cares about one person: himself.
However, Wheatley’s film is the kind where one’s personal politics will largely determine how “High-Rise” is read. It’s both a crafty move by the director and a bit of a cop out. This approach means that the filmmaker can avoid cornering himself into a narrative box, but the picture suffers under this ephemeral sort of thematic focus. The characters can never be more than narrative metaphors, and because they don’t have much on the page beyond that, it’s difficult to engage with their fate as the high-rise devolves into hell on Earth. This is not helped by a sometimes tedious, nearly two hour running time. Wheatley’s four previous films were all tight and lean at ninety minutes, but “High-Rise” drags with the extra padding. Perhaps the director was trying to match the excess of the characters at the top of the high-rise, but it’s hard to care when they’re all so loathsome.
In pure technical terms, Wheatley hasn’t missed a step. His longtime cinematographer Laurie Rose does great, subtle work in marking the visual differences between the classes in the early stages, and has a lot of fun with primary colors in the building’s supermarket. When everything starts to fall apart, Rose’s camera observes rather than becoming as aggressive as the action on screen, and it’s smart play. The one moment he gets flashy, he breaks out the kaledeiscope lens from “A Field In England,” but it’s for a well-chosen and memorable scene. Meanwhile, Clint Mansell provides a solid score suggesting classical music, and Portishead contributes a terrific, haunting cover of Abba’s “S.O.S.”
I haven’t talked extensively about the actors, because from Hiddleston on down, this ensemble functions as devices rather than necessary elements of the plot. Any of them, including the lead, could disappear without much consequence on the overreaching arc of “High-Rise.” But Wheatley’s decision to leave the meaning of the scope of the story up to the viewer doesn’t work here, whereas the air of mystery greatly aided “Kill List.” The difference is that that film’s thrills are heightened because the motivation is left to the imagination. But the narrative goals of “High-Rise” serve a different purpose, and the withholding nature of the movie and its indifference to the fate of the characters creates a barrier that makes it difficult for the audience to share in the mayhem. Indirectly or inadvertently, viewers are left in their own penthouse of sorts, watching from afar with a curious but detached interest. [C]