There’s a scene in director Ben Wheatley’s HIGH-RISE where two characters discuss the qualities it takes to live in a high-rise apartment building. However, none of the characters in the film possess these qualities – nor are they as deep as the filmmaker would have us believe. This film is deliberately provocative, pretentious and pompous. But it looks so seductive, polished and pretty.
Based on J.G. Ballard’s novel and adapted by Wheatley’s wife/ frequent collaborator Amy Jump, the film is an allegory for the breakdown of a caste society – one that lives within the concrete walls of a luxury apartment tower. Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is a rather cold and clinical physiologist; however, as he’s quick to discover, a degree in psychology would serve him better in this mod monolith. The building is filled with colorful – albeit abhorrent – residents. They include an entitled sportscar owner (James Purefoy), a self-absorbed actress (Sienna Guillory), a philandering documentarian (Luke Evans), an oversexed gossip monger (Sienna Miller), plus the penthouse’s god-like architect (Jeremy Irons) and his Marie Antoinette-like wife (Keeley Hawes). The power (it’s a metaphor) flickers on and off in the building, as well as being deliberately withheld by those on the higher floors in order to run their lavish parties. However, once the power fails (it’s still a metaphor), anarchy breaks out and the sects collapse into depravity, savagery and animalistic hedonism because that’s what happens in every utopian society cautionary tale.
Unlike David Cronenberg’s SHIVERS and Philip Noyce’s SLIVER, two other films set in luxury high-rises, Wheatley and Ballard’s setting doesn’t have much motivation for trapping its inhabitants in the singular location, I mean, outside of its purpose to be a heavy-handed literal METAPHOR. What’s stopping the characters from leaving? They aren’t trapped or on lock down – they are free to come and go as they please, to their jobs and whatnot. We’re not shown the draw for them to stay inside their closed environment. Once the trash starts piling up and food becomes so scarce that animals must be slaughtered, don’t reason and logic kick in? That’s when I’d have moved. No, wait. I’d have moved when the building owner raped me, but that’s just me. Cops come to check on the building, seeing things have gone pear-shaped – so clearly the rest of the town isn’t caught in an apocalypse. Shouldn’t a co-op board have been enacted when choosing the building’s tenants? Were there building codes that forced Royal (Irons) to have section-8 housing as the lower floor units? Or did he truly think poor and rich people could co-exist in harmony? If that’s the case, then why would he ever cut the electricity?
Everything Wheatley spotlights during the run time screams “THIS IS A METAPHOR!” From Laing peeling the face off the severed head like the skin on an orange, to the mirrors in Royal’s private elevator refracting Laing’s reflection, to Toby’s (Louis Suc) kaleidoscope, to Royal toppling his wife’s pudding, to the carafe of alcohol smashing on Pangbourne’s (Purefoy) sportscar, to the push pin in Laing’s wall, to him slapping on a coat a paint hoping to cover up his past, the symbolism is overwhelming – and sloppily handled. Wheatley’s gorgeous vision is devoid of any subtlety and lacks genuine heft. It’s a vapid statement made by film’s end. You’d learn more from an episode of THE REAL WORLD.
There’s also no defining moment where the have-nots really stick it to the haves. Moments where you think it’s going to happen, like at the pool party clash where Wilder (Evans) kills Jane’s (Guillory) precious pup, deflate rapidly. Jump’s dialogue can be cringe-worthily obvious: Laing talks of the apartments as “slots” and “boxes” of Royal’s design. Charlotte (Miller) enquires about what’s in his unpacked cardboard boxes and Laing answers, “Sex and paranoia.” Helen (Elizabeth Moss) asks her hubby Wilder if his latest documentary is a “prison documentary.” Um, yeah, we all got that. The building’s backslide into wicked chaos is relegated to a montage set to Portishead’s creepy version of Abba’s “S.O.S.” – the song choice being one of the film’s highlights.
While we’re on it, other bright spots include Clint Mansell’s unsettling score, Laurie Rose’s pristine cinematography, Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s brilliant costume design (I can haz the wardrobe?) and Mark Tildesley’s production design. Also, if there’s one thing I can credit Wheatley and Jump for doing with their adaptation, it’s that they made the violence against animals not nearly as graphic as Ballard’s original source material. While it’s still not palatable, at least it’s toned down.
With no characters to root for, there’s not much left to do than hope for someone to burn it all down.
2 out of 5
HIGH-RISE is available on demand, iTunes and Amazon Video starting on April 28. It will be in theaters on May 13.