Before watching this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, all I knew of director Ben Wheatley was, by way of reputation, that he is the kind of filmmaker to not flinch away from things either visually or conceptually. After watching High Rise, I can certainly confirm that holds true.
Set in a near-future mid-1970s the film follows Laing (Tom Hiddleston) upon his arrival in a newly built, state of the art, high-rise apartment block through to an arguably abstract conclusion that is hinted at in the film’s opening scene. In this scene we see a blood stained Hiddleston stalking the corridors of the flat-block and apparently relaxing on his balcony despite the suggested chaos surrounding him.
While I’m not familiar with the book I am, again, aware of Ballard by reputation and his science fiction based explorations of the extremes of human nature and generally negative changes in ongoing human society. Wheatley’s High Rise fits this perfectly and Hiddleston is the eye of this particular storm.
While the film does tell a story it is at times fairly lose with jumps in events occurring with seemingly no rhyme or reason but serving to develop what is its main aspect, an atmosphere of sheer unease that pervades everything.
At first things seem relatively naturalistic as we meet Laing and various of his neighbours from the upper-middle class Charlotte (Sienna Miller), to the more working class Wilder (Luke Evans) and his family to the tower’s architect, Royal, (Jeremy Irons) who suitably lives in the penthouse with his distant wife and a horse.
This class divide is something that runs through the whole film and, while it clearly comes from a place reflecting its original 1970s setting, it still rings true now, especially as it looks at how the supposed upper classes use those ‘beneath’ them to distract from what they are doing and how decadent and corrupt they are. That is to simplify things a bit, but Wheatley paints a condensed picture of this real world dynamic excellently.
The way the uneasy atmosphere develops pulls in all aspects of the film from the script and performance to music, design and editing reminding me in many ways of how Stanley Kubrick would use the film as a whole giving the sense that everything that we experience is intentionally there and not left to chance.
Particularly impressive here is the soundtrack that switches from various covers of ABBA (including an amazing version of SOS from Portishead) to deep soundscapes that do a great job of unsettling the viewer as the film escalates.
Along with Hiddleston’s Laing, Evan’s Wilder is a cornerstone of the film and gives a performance that starts out like something from a 70s cop show and grows into something brutally visceral, acting as something of a counterpoint to Laing.
Aside from the bigger names High Rise features a host of recognizable performers some of whom stand out by being almost a part of the unsettling atmosphere as much as they are characters in their own right. In particular Reece Shearsmith’s sadistic dentist Steele (like Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors but with a serious bureaucratic coldness) and Louis Suc as Charlotte’s son Toby who appears to have more of an idea of what’s going on than anyone else.
As its goes on it becomes clear that High Rise is speaking in abstract terms as well as naturalistic ones and led to me questioning the source of the mania developing amongst the tower block’s inhabitants.
Like all the best unsettling films this is never wholly explained but various things are hinted at that left me wondering not just what the source would be but what that means in a wider sense away from the movie.
In the end High Rise is a lesson in just how to deliver an uncompromising vision in film in the most complete way I’ve seen in quite some time. It is at once brutal, visceral, disturbing and thought-provoking and has proved to me what everyone else seems to already know, that Wheatley (and his filmmaking partner Amy Jump) are possibly the best all round filmmakers working in Britain today.