High-Rise (2015)

Directed By: Ben Wheatley
Written By: Amy Jump
  J.G. Ballard
Starring: Tom Hiddlestone
  Jeremy Irons
  Sienna Miller
  Luke Evans

I’m not really sure how I feel about Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, even after a full day of thinking about it. That’s probably not the first thing you’d want to read when you start a review, but hopefully by the end of it you’ll understand more what I mean.

High-Rise, an adaptation of a J.G. Ballard book by the same name, tells the story of Dr Laing (Tom Hiddlestone), or, perhaps more specifically, the 45-storey skyscraper into which he moves. Brand new, it contains all the mod cons that you could possible need; a supermarket, a swimming pool, a sauna…even a primary school. Yet despite this, the building already is starting to have teething problems, and the frequent power cuts, rubbish blockages and water shortages start to cause tension among the residents. Eventually, the building descends into violence and chaos when food becomes scarce as the lower floors, the poorer denizens, rebel against the richer upper class.

My primary bugbear with High-Rise is that ultimately, the way the story progresses doesn’t logically follow. I appreciate that, without any other ways of solving their problems, this may indeed be the way the situation unfolds…but the high rise in question is situated on the outskirts of London. You can literally see a city on the horizon in many of the shots, and everyone has working cars parked right outside. Why someone hasn’t thought to call the police, or, hell, even do their shopping elsewhere, I don’t know. A throwaway shot seems to indicate that Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building’s brainchild, has perhaps been paying off the police to turn a blind eye to the situation, but I can’t for the life of me work out what purpose this would possibly serve. Had access to the outside world been cut off somehow (more akin to Snowpiercer), I’d be more convinced by this movie, but I’m not sure I’m on board with the fact that people would rather endure the death and destruction that is going on around them – even actually becoming content with it – than actually try and escape it.

And yet, despite all that, the individual components of High-Rise are pretty fantastic. It’s extremely well cast – Luke Evans as a dangerously erratic documentary filmmaker is a particular highlight, and who knew Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss could do such a convincing English accent? – and the art direction and sets are superb. By setting High-Rise in the 70s, Wheatley is able to capture a style somewhere between Kubrickian perfection and grindhouse schlock, and draws from them in equal measure as the narrative dictates (also, keep an ear out for an excellent use of Portishead’s chilling cover of ABBA’s SOS).

I think the thing I can’t quite wrap my head around High-Rise is the lack of cohesion. It oftentimes seems like a series of vignettes rather than a steady descent into madness, and maybe that’s what I find troubling. By jumping over the course of three months in the space of just over two hours, it feels like the film skipped over a lot of perhaps what you would need, as an audience, to help justify that descent into madness, and as a result it’s a little unclear as to whether this was a deliberate decision or just something that was completely overlooked.

It’s not a bad film, by any stretch, and I can see why people would enjoy it. I guess, ultimately, it’s just not for me.

Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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