High-Rise is a bit all over the place, and it’s a bit of a mess, but it also seems to be that way by design–a sort of warped architecture. I’d gone in sort of expecting a vertical version of Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, but it’s not that at all. This is its own strange edifice about social class and social order.
High-Rise isn’t concerned with organized class warfare. The middle-class, upper-middle-class, and upper-classes mingle together for drugs and booze and sex. Personal enmities spur the violence rather than aggressive class resentment, and there’s a sense of inward class cannibalization rather than an outright revolt by the lower classes to lay siege on the people high above them. What we have is more like people going absolutely Hobbesian–a war of all against all.
[This review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the domestic release of the film.]
Director: Ben Wheatley
Release Date: March 18, 2016 (UK); May 13, 2016 (USA)
Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is a brain surgeon who’s taken a flat in a new luxury high rise. In the apartment above there’s Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a flirty socialite who makes eyes with the good doctor as he sunbathes nude on his balcony. Building designer Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives in the penthouse, where his wife rides white horses on the rooftop garden and he looks down on his grand social experiment: all the comforts one could need, a hermetic society.
And yet the parties and the supermarket and the pool access is never enough to keep people compliant. They isolate themselves, they become tribal. The opening of the film, which looks downright post-apocalyptic, shows how far the high rise life has decayed. Laing scavenges the dumpsite foyer of his building for food, dressed in the tatters of a business suit. He’s gone from doctor to concrete pirate. There’s no food, but thank goodness for stray dogs.
Like the upper-middle-class residents of the skyscraper, I’m not sure director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump get what they want out of High-Rise; the same may go for the audience. Adapted from the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, it’s a sordid and decadent movie about people going native in their own crowded living quarters, but it’s even looser and sloppier than that. As society crumbles, the narrative structure of the film breaks down as well. The last half of the movie eschews traditional narrative and tells the rest of the building’s decay in a series of loud vignettes and montages.
I can pinpoint the exact moment midway through High-Rise where I lost a lot of my patience. Before a raging bastard of a man named Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) goes on a dominating rampage, he tapes his own voice in a cassette recorder. He repeats “I am Richard Wilder!” On the one hand, I get it (Wild, yes, and you’re wilder than others, like this is the wild, okay), but on the other hand I rolled my eyes because I couldn’t have not gotten it already (yeah, Dick wilder, I noticed). The scene that follows it is ugly and uncomfortable; obviously by design, and yet.
High-Rise isn’t bad so much as it’s convoluted in its execution and maybe wishy-washy with its cultural critique. There’s something Gilliam-esque about some of the scenes. The aristocratic party in 18th century garb is a nice bit of upper class affectation, and ditto the block party out in the hall. Similarly, the growing squalor of the building looks like something out of Brazil combined with a third-world landfill. The lights flicker out periodically, and nothing quite works the way it should in this place, and yet one carries on.
Laing is no Sam Lowry from Brazil, however. Like some of the characters in High-Rise, Laing is passive and content to sit back as the world around him devolves and crumbles, which sort of squanders Hiddleston’s natural charisma. He exists as a metaphor, a symbol, not a person. Meanwhile, others act or are acted upon; most of them also metaphors or symbols rather than people. It’s the difference between facades and actual domiciles.
There’s a clinical lens about High-Rise, which makes sense since the breakdown is about observing the devaluation of others. It’s like watching a crowded cage full of rats who are bound, at some point, to destroy each other just given the crowding and the lack of resources. And yet it’s not quite like that since our ability to observe this cannibalization is interrupted. The sense of cause-and-effect is broken up, it feels like there’s something missing. The vignettes that comprise the final half of High-Rise become frustrating since we’re rarely offered a chance to explore the emerging tribes of the building. Here are tribal cultures and subcultures organizing themselves inside of a multi-tiered concrete petri dish (e.g., a matriarchal society of women and orphaned children), and we barely get an opportunity to observe their method of survival.
MILD SPOILERS ABOUT THE FINAL SCENE
The final words of the film don’t belong to any of the characters we’ve spent time with. Instead it’s the voice of Margaret Thatcher extolling the virtues of capitalism. Nevermind that there’s little in the movie about capitalism per se. Maybe this is Thatcher suggesting capitalism as a solution to the egalitarian nightmare whose failure we just watched? And given our place in time, maybe the state of nature isn’t quite as bad as the current state of government-approved inequality. High-Rise is a work of interesting and extreme architecture, but I’m still not sure what to make of its design.