British director Ben Wheatley has churned out five features and a fully realized career in the amount of time many filmmakers take to get started. With his 2009 debut “Down Terrace,” Wheatley showed a penchant for grimly amusing riffs on deranged British personality types, from the aging criminal in his first feature to the hit man with marital problems in “Kill List” and the wayward murderous couple in “Sightseers.” Wheatley’s recurring focus makes him a natural fit to adapt “High-Rise,” J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel about a luxury tower that tips into chaos and becomes a wacky metaphor for class warfare.
At the same time, the story’s jumbled set of circumstances and massive ensemble mark a noticeable departure from Wheatley’s other, far more contained works. “High-Rise” isn’t an entirely cohesive accomplishment, but that’s part of its zany appeal. While in certain ways his weakest film, it maintains the morbid entertainment value found throughout Wheatley’s work while marking an ambitious step up in scale.
Stabilized by an icy Tom Hiddleston as part of an upper middle class revolt from the lower floors, “High-Rise” is an imminently watchable black comedy about the absurdities of wealth. Regular Wheatley collaborator Amy Jump’s dryly humorous script finds Hiddleston in the role of Dr. Robert Laing, who moves into the building eager to embrace the possibilities of an affluent community only to quickly realize he’s constrained by the floors above.
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Shortly after his arrival, he’s introduced to the building’s magisterial architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons, terrifically cast), who lives on the palatial top floor amidst expansive greenery and horses. Back on his level, Robert bonds with a crazy-eyed documentarian (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss, donning a convincing accent). The floor has its share of hedonistic parties, but nothing like the outrageous soirees thrown at the upper levels, which sets the stage for a developing sense of resentment from below.
In its opening scenes, “High Rise” establishes that the building has entirely devolved into a depraved world covered in trash, filled with corpses and grime. However, cinematographer Laurie Roses bathes even the shadowy interiors with bright colors that lend a comic book quality to the atmosphere. Flashing back to months earlier, “High Rise” chronicles the devolution of civilized behavior in the tower, but it’s already heading in that direction by the time Robert shows up.
From a cinematic standpoint, “High Rise” has much in common with last year’s “Snowpiercer,” which imagined a post-apocalyptic future where humankind has been consigned to a moving train. While Bong Joon-ho tracked the battle of lower class residents battling to the front of the train, Wheatley finds his characters literally angling for upward mobility.
It doesn’t take long for Robert to draw the affections of promiscuous neighbor Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller, in a broad, underdeveloped part) while engaging in the rambunctious, boozy parties that dominate life in the tower. Eventually, these antics give way to wicked orgies and reckless fist fights that suggest a post-modern “Satyricon” set in the seventies. The mock celebratory approach to this crude mixture of sex and insanity takes a page from the Stanley Kubrick playbook of ironic distance. Wheatley brings a formidable energy to specific interactions, but doesn’t juggle the pieces cohesively enough to make each scene flow naturally into the next.
But “High Rise” derives most of its appeal less from plotting than sheer anarchic glee. The director clearly gets a kick out of establishing the absurdly posh interiors of the building — a glass elevator that displays its passengers in a string of infinite reflections, the aforementioned storybook roof deck — and demolishing them. Like “Snowpiercer,” the movie takes a thin allegory and realizes it in such vivid terms that it remains thoroughly enjoyable even when in veers into a messy pileup of absurd twists.
That doesn’t help the movie once it shifts focus from Hiddleston to various other apartment dwellers, particularly the documentarian played by Evans, a mopey, unstable presence whose transition to all-out lunatic is tough to buy. Eventually, “High Rise” crashes in a series of grisly encounters as the power structures fall to pieces, but it never ceases to deliver a series of wildly enjoyable sights and sounds. Wheatley nicely contemporaries the material with a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack (which includes the appropriate choice of ABBA’s “SOS,” among others) while allowing Ballard’s original dialogue to carry the ideas. Chief among them is the observation that the “High Rise” ensemble has been “thriving like an advanced species in the neutral atmosphere,” a poetic concept that speaks to the heightened fantasy that carries the hectic narrative along.
“High Rise” closes with a blunt statement of intent, quoting Margaret Thatcher complaining about state capitalism, followed by the image of a bubble bursting. However, while obvious, it’s a statement that speaks to a movie rich with attitude and provocative ideas. Even when “High-Rise” falls apart as a movie, that itself speaks to its angry thematic focus.
“High Rise” premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.