Dir. Ben Wheatley; Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans
[3 out of 4 stars]
When imagining dystopias, British authors seem to be more afraid of affronts to their civilised society than anything else, be it war, plague, or violence. The upper class in these stories would, quite literally, rather give up their heads than their titles. However, there’s also the trope that these British aristocrats are never more than a couple meals from descending into the very barbarism they fear most. Take The Lord of the Flies (1954): it doesn’t take more than two days for the most proper British boys to become savages – the very thing they prided themselves on being least. In High-Rise (2016), Ben Wheatley takes on J.G. Ballard’s “unfilmable” novel and brings to the screen this terrifying descent to barbarism through the eyes of a seemingly normal guy.
It’s 1975 in London, and a young psychologist and lobotomist named Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves to the 25th floor of a new apartment complex on the edge of the city. It’s a utopia: 40 floors, huge rooms, all-inclusive pool, gym, and grocery store. Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a woman from the floor above, leans over the balcony one day, batting her eyelashes, and invites him to a party upstairs. She introduces Laing to residents from the higher levels: frivolous and bored, they host cocktail parties, take drugs, and sleep with each other. At one of these parties, Laing encounters Wilder (Luke Evans), a documentary filmmaker from one of the lower floors who abandons his pregnant wife, Helen (Elisabeth Moss), to pursue women and parties above. Laing also meets Royal (Jeremy Irons), the so-called “Architect” of the building, who lives in luxury on the top floor, and takes a liking to Laing, defending him from a few of the top floors’ more vicious residents.
After an upper-floor pool party causes electricity on the lower levels to disappear, riots break out. Wilder leads the movement, invading the pool with his own group of children and parents. Royal’s cronies brutally fight back. The building slowly falls into disrepair, cars in the lot outside remain untouched, and the residents take to looting the grocery store as well as other floors. Cocktail parties turn into orgies, and characters discuss trading wives for food. But the aristocrats will never quite give up their society: they may be forced to resort to eating horse meat at their dinner parties, but they refuse to give up the parties themselves. As Wilder explains, “Living in a high-rise requires a special type of behaviour. Acquiescent. Restrained. Perhaps even slightly mad.”
The genius of High-Rise is the drawing-out of the descent to barbarism. Like The Shining (1980), the progression is subtle: it’s not the story but the crooked camera angles which foreshadow the approaching madness. One shot in particular caught my attention. Early in the film, Charlotte’s son, Toby, is playing with a kaleidoscope. After Laing asks, “What can you see through that thing?”, Toby responds, “The future”. The shot then dissolves into the hallucinatory colours of the kaleidoscope. Later, the motif returns in a shot through the kaleidoscope of a character being stabbed by multiple knives. The spinning shot compounds the overwhelming effect, producing a sort of single-shot montage. In this scene and others, chaos reigns.
Hiddleston’s acting contributes to the feeling of madness. At first, he’s merely a good-looking doctor, but his inner paranoia soon comes out, his tired eyes becoming hollow, and his voice flatter; one could almost accuse him of not acting at all. For me, the brilliance of his acting is revealed when he’s alone. You can see it in his eyes: when he’s around other people, he doesn’t seem to be able to see them, and when he’s alone, he sees things we can’t.
Over time, one gets the distinct impression that the high-rise itself plays a more important role than Laing does. It is personified both by characters and by the camera: when Royal asks for his impressions, Laing says, “Well, the lights fire like neurons in a great brain. The lifts seem like chambers of a heart. And when I move, I move along its corridors like a cell in a network of arteries.” The cinematography, too, seems to highlight the high-rise’s role. The scene-changes linger on shots of the ominous building – its empty halls, rooms, balconies – as if someone is there. It’s no accident that by the end of the film, the lights have faltered, the lifts have stopped moving, and the corridors are blocked by barricades of boxes, chairs, and desks. On one level, the slow destruction of the building mirrors the barbarism within, but on another level, the building itself is the real victim. The once-thriving building has died a symbolic death and begun to decay.
Wheatley’s High-Rise is an independent film and feels like one. There’s a certain attempt to make the cinematography feel artistic, but it often feels like the aesthetic choice is motivated only by a desire to be different. Certain shots work well – for example, the kaleidoscope shot – but others are more alienating than enticing, as if Wheatley simply told the cinematographers to randomly choose a corner of the room to shoot from. Although these scenes are, no doubt, intended to highlight Laing’s gradual descent to madness and paranoia, the meaning is lost through the distraction. Wheatley tries to do too much – to instill too much symbolism into each shot – so that the film becomes overwhelming at times.