Ben Wheatley is often associated with displaying the unedifying components of society, whether it be the barmy insight into couple-gone-wrong in ‘Sightseers’ or the destructive down the rabbit hole vision of ‘Kill List’. His task in ‘High Rise’ is to somehow convey the machinations of J.G Ballard’s “unfilmable novel” into an adaptable and watchable movie. Fortunately, Wheatley has never been known for typical conventionality when making films and it results in an intoxicating and incomparable parable that sees a director inspired and willing to throw the rule book out the window. High Rise is a mishmash of utter carnage as depravity meets insanity meets class warfare.
High Rise is set up as a very much dystopian landscape about to reel from the coronation of Thatcher’s rise to power. As much obvious as it is brutal, this obvious checkpoint of social and hierarchical commentary survives because of the architecture surrounding it. That the high rise the characters spend the film in is made up of concrete and brick, brutal rather than breakable, makes an immediate judgement. Much like the desperately grim wallpaper that parades around every corner, this is an upfront, retro-future approach that clearly doesn’t want to adhere to standards.
Tom Hiddleston plays Dr. Robert Laing, the nightmarish and hedonistic main character who we’re introduced to at a moment when he’s about to devour a barbequed dog in Lord of the Flies style transfixion. As the film flashes back several months from the apocalyptic nightmare and aftermath of a party full of bombs and destructive toys, Laing is still a mercurial, frankly weird man, tanning naked as his new neighbour, Charlotte (Sienna Miller) shouts down to the 25th floor. This high rise tower block is 40 stories tall and the comparison for the way in which Snowpiercer works certainly seems apt and approachable. There are discernible differences however, mainly in the sense that Snowpiercer worked on a much more appropriate level – everything while strange seemed to progress in an understandable sense – whereas High Rise works on the concept of the inane, insane and inhaled.
Guests orgy, booze and ride their way across sets even as they witness the kaleidoscopic downfall of Laing’s home. Wheatley’s attention to detail is remarkable in these moments, riotous as they are. He introduces the grotesque: a woman asking for anal sex; the surreal: a woman dressed up in 18th century couture attire riding a horse across her ‘shag piles’; to the inane: a goat tied up with balloons slowly floating above a burning marketplace. It’s a masterpiece of imagery with shot upon shot of the utmost sincerely bizarre appreciation. Despite the chaos however, everything is appropriated within four walls and a roof. The juxtaposition between the brutalist interior and outrageous goings-on serves as the ongoing parable: the people break down but the construction remains, battered and broken, but standing. Arguably the building can be rebuilt. The residents cannot however.
From the evidence of High Rise, Wheatley and his co-writer, Amy Jump, look like they revelled in the depravity of their adaptation. Wheatley, so often associated with smaller projects and much less financial backing gets his hands on enough money to be able to do whatever he likes and it really rather shows. The only true demonstration of how chaotic High Rise is comes from the fact that his previous films have been insanely odd without the need to splash the cash. Now, Wheatley gets the opportunity to pour liquid gold into production effortlessly, resulting in hallways full of carnage, orgies, fighting and everything his heart could have desired. When you allow talented directors these possibilities then the result can only ever be interesting and inevitably surreal. What you get is a director who never employs answers to the images on screen, but charges off satisfied knowing that he’s throwing you very much into the deep-end, immersing the audience in as much tipsy unaccountability as he can muster.
High Rise is truly a symptom of a great mind and unquenchable thirst to plunge viewers into the most despicable situations. Hiddleston is fantastic, as are the entirety of the primarily British ensemble of actors and backed up through an almost oneiric, mazy set that borders on the indescribable. The tower is very much in keeping with the metaphysical embodiment of power, destruction and society rolled into one desperate package. A Ben Wheatley film is truly a welcome slap in the face, wake-up call to directors trending towards what they envision will net them the grand prizes at the end of the year. Wheatley invokes chaos and his almost hybrid approach to film-making serves the audience as much as the industry. This weirdly intoxicating film drives home Ballard’s story with visual aplomb and even though it leaves out certain scenes, as a whole there aren’t too many adaptations with such unimpeachable style and tone.
High Rise is out on Blu-Ray and DVD now.