dir: Ben Wheatley
I don’t know about this flick. I’m not sure I got it, really. I'm not sure there's enough of anything to get.
I mean, I watched it. I saw lots of images, and heard lots of dialogue, and most of that went through my eyes and ears into my brain, and I’m recalling many of those moments and images and ideas right now, but I’m not sure what they add up to.
Ben Wheatley is a beast of a Brit director, who’s made a swag of vicious flicks, and this is no less vicious, though it seems like a bigger budget / bigger deal than what he’s handled previously. I mean, after all, this has Tom Hiddleston in it, in a lead role.
You know, Loki? The (possible) next James Bond? Taylor Swift’s current boyfriend?
Even more (slightly less) impressive than that, this has Jeremy Irons in a key role.
Sorry, old Simpsons reference, couldn’t resist.
High-Rise is based on a book by JG Ballard, which is a name that doesn’t resonate with most people, but it does with me, because I went through that stage that many aging literature nerds of my generation went through when you read many of the books of particular writers all in a row: like you go through your Bukowski stage, your Henry Miller stage, your Vonnegut stage, and then, during your science fiction phase, your Philip K. Dick stage and your Ballard stage. And I read a bunch of them, including this.
Thank the gods for the libraries of the past.
Ballard is most famous for being an unrepentant hound dog, but also because he wrote some books. One of those, based on his life, was turned into Empire of the Sun, what that little known director Spielbergo made into a movie starring Christian Bale. But Ballard was better known, prior to that, for his sci-fi / speculative fiction.
And then there’s Crash – the book about a bunch of people turned on by car crashes and the ensuing deformities thereafter (no thank you, David Cronenberg, for the movie you made of that book).
High-Rise, like many of his other books, was essentially dystopian, in that it framed people, being Men, as generally being never very far from reverting to Lord of the Flies-kinds of behaviour. It argued that whatever pretence might exist of civility and politeness in society and such would give way quite easily, dropping like a bridesmaid’s panties, at the slightest hint of pressure.
It was always a British novel, and it’s a very British adaptation, so class was always going to play a part in an adaptation of it, but Wheatley amps it up even more, so that it’s less about the unconscious desire of all men to be rapists and murderers, and more about how it amuses the wealthy to torment the less fortunate.
Above all this, or gliding through the middle of this, is Dr Robert Laing (Hiddleston), a supremely empty man in a suit who is a recent émigré to this newfandangled and ultra-modern high rise apartment building (this is set in the 1970s, I think?) The place is, at least in theory, designed to be a self-sufficient enclave. Somewhat self-supporting and utopian. A beacon to the rest of London, surely.
Laing still goes to his job as a doctor and as a lecturer in physiology (the most awful scene, which I found completely inexplicable, involves doing stuff to the head and torso of some poor guy for no reason or subject I can imagine, but it’s meant to be purely for work purposes), and skates about, gorgeous and untouched mostly by anything he sees or does. He is the main character, but I can tell you virtually nothing about him, other than that he’s a survivor, and he’s developed a taste for dog.
The building is filled with stacks of people representing different demographics, much of the time, but in many senses the characters that we get to see or who speak actual dialogue are so sharply defined (and odd, in most cases) that they seem like more than just an embodiment of a cultural or socioeconomic rung of the ladder.
That’s not true of all of them. Some seem solely to be embodiments of a hateful aristocracy (those that live higher up) that hates the lower orders for no discernible reason, and the less wealthy, exemplified by… I’m not sure, maybe the berserk George Best clone Wilder (Luke Evans), just seem to be angry. Class angry. And monsters themselves.
Of course, then there’s the architect Royal living at the top (Jeremy. Irons) who built this tower intended to be a symbol of humanity striving towards the heavens, an outstretched hand straining upwards. He is vague as fuck, and, of course, lives at the top with his redheaded wife (Keeley Hawes), who does drugs and rides around on a horse.
A horse at the top of an apartment building? How deliciously decadent, you might think.
We sense that Laing wishes to aspire towards his betters, even as he dallies with the wives of the lower orders. Completely understandably, every woman who sees him needs to have sex with him. Look, if this was any other flick or actor, maybe I’d ark up about it, but, in case we have any doubts, there’s an earlyish scene where a partying single-mother neighbour (Sadie Miller) observes Laing from above, nude sunbathing in all his glory, and you really can’t begrudge the lady after that.
Less comprehensible is that the “earth mother” type from the lowest part of the building (Elisabeth Moss, of Peggy from Mad Men fame), who’s like 9 months pregnant, who’s married to the unstable and violent Wilder, also needs a piece of Hiddleston. Everyone needs a piece of Hiddleston in their lives, no doubt.
The thing is, whether you see this tower as an allegory for British society, or any society, for that matter, there’s a part of the story that you have to take on faith, as in, it doesn’t really make any sense, but the scenario doesn’t really work without it, so you have to accept it as a given even when you have no reason to.
See, in other contexts, whether it’s for The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later or Camus’ The Plague or whatever else, there’s some precipitating event that destroys the social fabric or at least suspends it, compelling a bunch of people to act awful, and a bunch of other people to try to survive and to hold on to a skerrick of their humanity. Here it’s just the residents of the tower choosing to remain trapped in a hell of their own devising. Wait, maybe it is a comment on public housing – council estates, I’m not sure.
In the apartment tower, all semblance of order and basic decency falls apart with only tiny nudges in that direction, but there’s no real reason as to why. Sure, I’m not that dense, I understand that the upper floors are fucking with the lower floors (because they can, and because they’re selfish and sadistic), but however much of a metaphor the building is for society, I never understood why people couldn’t walk out of the building and go get whatever they wanted needed or just leave. The building’s supermarket runs out of stocks of food and booze and isn’t replaced. Services start shutting down, so the place becomes dirty.
Well, so what? Of course Royal is obscenely out of touch, and his predatory lackeys are predatory lackeys. But other than representing that they are haughty and such, and then start doing awful things to other people and each other, I couldn’t grasp either the how of it or the why.
There’s like five ‘rich’ well-dressed bastards.
There’s like thousands of less ‘wealthy’ people in the tower. I don’t understand where the contest is. There is no police force or security guards or henchmen (there's one henchman) to enforce their property rights or desires (unlike in the real world) so that they can get away with anything.
So much of the allegory falls apart for me because it all comes across as a hellish nightmare in which a horrible scenario / tableaux is created, but none of it seems sustainable or even vaguely sensible, just like most nightmares. There are these narrative gaps, and in one glaring instance, an editing decision (to do with Royal walking the lower floors and pretending to be a commoner, like maybe a Henry V pisstake) that made absolutely no sense to me.
And there are characters who do a multitude of awful, awful things to each other (including Wilder raping a character that is heavily threatened throughout the flick), but without me being able to understand any of the reasons why.
Hiddleston is blank throughout, and profoundly unconvincing, I’m ashamed to say, and he himself looks perplexed during a number of scenes, where I’m guessing he had as little idea what he was meant to be going for as I did watching him do it. As a black comedy where a bunch of awful stuff happens to a bunch of people, maybe, like most of Ben Wheatley’s stuff, that gets it over the line, but as some kind of powerful allegory or satire of society?
I call bullshit.
High-Rise is hollow like a donut that’s had the jam sucked out of it, regardless of how pretty and obscene it may look on the outside.
5 times I think Hiddleston is a bit young to be coasting just yet out of 10
“For all its inconveniences, Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise. Ready to move forward and explore life. How exactly, he had not yet decided.” – I’m sure everything will go well with that – High-Rise