Directed by Ben Wheatley
Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise has drawn a very mixed reaction from fans and critics, which can often be the hallmark of a great film. We follow Dr. Laing (Hiddleston), a psychologist who seems to specialise in the anatomy of the brain. He is clearly detached from his work, which perhaps is what prompts him to rent a room in the High-Rise, to get further away from his reality, away from the unnamed city. Away from his past. The building and its inhabitants certainly prove to be a great distraction for Laing, though not in the way he was expecting.
The movie opens using a narrative device that I think rarely works: showing us the end result and then going back to the beginning to show us how it got to that point. Normally I’m not a fan of films that open in this fashion, but the opening scenes don’t tell us anything finite. It shows us Dr. Laing, unshaven and looking a complete wreck, out on his balcony, cooking what appears to be the leg of a dog. Interesting! We then go back three months, back to when Laing first moved into the High-Rise, a self-sustained tower with its own shopping centre, squash courts and a gymnasium, among other things. Almost as if its creator wanted his tenants to never leave the building.
Despite being built as a “crucible for change” according to its architect, Mr Royal, it soon becomes obvious that the building has developed a social class divide, depending on the floor you live on. What amused me most about this situation was the sheer arrogance of the ‘upper-class’ people, quick to turn on each other, while gossiping like there is no tomorrow and looking down, literally, on those that live below them. They remark at how dirty the ‘street-level’ people are, while those near the bottom complain that they paid the same amount for their apartment but are treated like garbage and are suddenly subject to power failures.
Laing comes to a key realisation when playing a game of squash with Mr Royal, who remarks about the more disillusioned in the building: “They have fitted themselves so tightly into their slots that they … they no longer have room to escape themselves.” The tower is a place where its occupants cannot escape themselves, leading to some extreme behaviour, especially from maverick documentary film-maker Wilder, a character whose sheer energy is nailed by Luke Evans, chewing up every scene he is in. But he certainly isn’t the only one acting odd.
Occupying the 25th floor, Laing seems to be right in the middle of this class struggle, and it is remarked by one of Mr. Royal’s heavies that he is quite the social climber. Indeed, he manages to make peace with those living above and below him, despite multiple obstacles, many truly bizarre in nature. The fact that Laing is a psychologist, yet doesn’t leave the insanity of the building, is the ultimate statement about where Laing is psychologically. He is in fact asked at one point if he murdered his family, as gossip runs riot in the High-Rise. Laing hesitates before denying the accusation, and we hear no more about it. Was Laing insane before he even arrived at the High-Rise? We never know, and this is just one question of many that the film throws at you.
One of the best aspects of this film is the world in which it takes place. Adapting from a novel written in 1975, Wheatley and Jump are able to weave a truly surreal story taking elements from 1975 – where the British infrastructure was crumbling and citizens were subject to lengthy blackouts, while workers went on strike en masse. Despite this 70’s setting (and wardrobe), Wheatley incorporates it into a modern looking, dystopian world. The look of the tower alone suggests power, yet another attraction of living the ‘high-life’.
As the lower and upper class battle for supremacy – an ultimately fruitless task – life within the High-Rise devolves into total anarchy due to the class warfare taking place. Conditions are insane, much like many of the occupants, and almost all of the behaviour becomes crazy – all of it routinely ignored. The irony that the song SOS by ABBA is covered twice in this movie is not lost.
I’m sure most viewers will be asking themselves at some point in the film: why don’t these people simply leave this madness?
To these people, the style of the high-life is extremely attractive, as is the modern looking tower. This desire for a higher quality of life takes over their best judgement – despite the mess that is piling up, those living near the bottom only have one thing on their minds: climbing to the top, wanting what those above them have, almost child-like. They have cocooned themselves into this reality, disconnecting from the world that exists outside the building. Their determination to get even with those on the higher floors usurps their minds and best judgement, leaving them to continue the battle. As Mr Royal says, many of the occupants are no longer able to escape themselves, leading to almost beastly behaviour.
I certainly can’t blame someone who doesn’t buy this premise though. It is easy to say ‘why didn’t they just leave?’, but I feel there is much more to this film than first appears. I watched it twice, as the first ride was frantic and seemed riddled with plot-holes. Which it is; some aspects of the plot need to be overlooked if one is to enjoy the movie. Revel in its debauchery!
Add to this wild ride a fantastic soundtrack and a beautiful visual style, with a sharp script filled with dark, twisted humour that propels the story forward, and the movie becomes even more fun to lose oneself in. The cast of characters we meet define the word memorable; from gossip queen Charlotte to film-maker Wilder, as well as every single person in-between, no matter how small their role.
The movie becomes more fragmented as the film moves on, with the final act depicting the depravity that the men of the building have sunk to. Their disconnection from reality causes them to think of the High-Rise first and foremost, taking priority over almost everything else. There is no doubt that the final act is messy, disjointed, and more than a little jarring. But it is also one hell of a roller-coaster. This is Fear and Loathing gone sober.
One beer short of a sixer!