Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss
Directed By: Ben Wheatley
Running Time: 119 minutes
Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars
Late in the chaos that engulfs Ben Wheatley’s new film High-Rise, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) welcomes a woman into his paint splattered flat exclaiming “I think I finally found the right tone!” Against all odds, he may as well be describing the film itself. An adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel that was long thought unfilmable (producer Jeremy Thomas tried 30 years ago), Wheatley and Co. have managed to create a wonderfully anarchic microcosm of a society breaking down as it builds upwards. If the social commentary–the hazards of worshiping material wealth, the “1%” literally living it up on the top floors–is simplistic, Wheatley’s production team offers it up in the most absurdly beautiful ways. From the brutalist production design to a stunning score by Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream), High-Rise is a darkly humorous, sexy, and oftentimes grotesque cinematic experience.
The film opens with a bearded, bedraggled Laing foraging for supplies in the corpse-strewn detritus of his high-rise apartment building. “For all its inconveniences,” a civilized sounding Hiddleston narrates, “Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise.” Laing then rotisserie roasts a dog for supper. As one does. From here we go back to simpler times three months ago, when Laing was just moving into the shiny new development. At floor 25 out of 40, the good doctor quickly learns the strict class divide of the upper and lower residents between which he sits–or, nude sunbathes actually–nearly smack in the middle. Laing is welcomed into the upper echelons by Charlotte Melville (Miller) as she dallies with lower-leveled married man Richard Wilder (Evans). Laing’s even invited to the penthouse occupied by mysterious architect Royal (Jeremy Irons, regal in all white). Royal views what he has wrought, one tower in a series of five, as a “crucible for change” while brain surgeon Laing pleases Royal when he describes it more as a “diagram of an unconscious psychic event.” Royal is so impressed with Laing he attempts to invite him to a decadent fancy dress party thrown by his wife. Laing is roundly rejected by Royal’s peers and experiences the first of many power outages from within an elevator he’s been unceremoniously shoved into. The honeymoon is over.
These early sequences of life in the High-Rise had me enthralled. Laing’s exploration of the tower is paired perfectly with Clint Mansell’s driving orchestra music, which manages to capture the entrepreneurial spirit of the shiny all inclusive tower while suggesting the underlying tensions of the residents pulsing through the structure. One tiny inconvenience is enough to upset this flow and set everyone off into rage. To top it off, everyone is impeccably tailored. Meanwhile, from his place in the middle, Laing is able to interact with all levels of residents who can’t seem to grasp which ‘slot’ he is meant to fill.
Hiddleston’s Laing is a hard one to pin down and makes for a fascinating entry into the film’s madness. He initially tells Charlotte he doesn’t think he can change (he’s speaking of getting into a swimsuit but the line, like so many in Amy Jump’s script, is delivered with more weight than that) and for a while that’s true. Laing seems a neutral character, claiming he desires a blank slate in the wake of his sister’s death. When confronted with quarreling residents, he seeks to pacify the tensions between lower floor residents, the maintenance man and the architect who has accepted him. But the longer he’s in the building the more Laing’s crueler tendencies come to light. Mouthing off at a child, casually implying a deathly prognosis to a social rival–Laing’s mean streak is comparatively subtle in the shadow of Evans’s aptly named Wilder but Hiddleston is quietly menacing throughout. And his desperate need to keep his dress shirt and tie on is a nice touch.
As the tower devolves into darkness, murder and crammed garbage shoots, your enjoyment of the latter half of the film may depend upon whether you buy into the notion that the residents do not run screaming to the authorities. After all there is an outside world to this tower, this isn’t Snowpiercer. However Wheatley crams enough absurdist humor into these late stages that I, like the looney residents drolly contemplating lobotomizing their rivals, surrendered to a logic more powerful than reason. Or just damn stylish film making.
This film received its New York premiere at last week’s Tribeca Film Fest and is available to rent now onDemand, Amazon and iTunes–though for the best experience, hold out for its theatrical release May 13th!