Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Heights of "High-Rise"

Reactions have been very mixed towards Ben Wheatley's adaptation of "High-Rise," the J.G. Ballard dystopian novel.  Some love it and some hate it.  Those who expected a genre film that would follow the expected rules of genre films hated it.  Those who expected a more faithful and explicit retelling of the events of the novel hated it.  I fall into neither of those groups and loved it, as a full throated satire about social unrest and class warfare.  I admit that I was a little worried by the pairing of director and material - Ben Wheatley's "Kill List" did nothing for me - but now there's no doubt in my mind that he was exactly the right director to bring "High-Rise" to the screen. 

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), moves into a new apartment on the 25th floor of a new luxury high-rise complex on the outskirts of London.  Quickly, he learns that the tenants have adopted a strict hierarchy, with the wealthy elite on the top floors, and the less well-off occupying the lower floors.  Laing becomes involved with a single woman named Charlotte (Sienna Miller) a few floors up, and at one of her parties meets a documentary filmmaker, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), and his pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss), from the lower floors.  Laing is also invited to the penthouse on the 40th floor to meet the high-rise's visionary architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), but is later ejected from a party by his wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes), limiting Laing's social mobility.  Tensions rise as problems in the high-rise's operations begin to crop up.  Garbage chutes are blocked, the power becomes intermittent, and frictions between residents begin to escalate.  Soon, the system begins to break down, but the tribalism of the high-rise dwellers only increases.

Wheatley's "High-Rise" has a lot in common with Bong Joon-ho's "Snowpiercer," which also packed the whole of human society into a single, limited geographical area, and examined social mechanisms through a revolution in miniature.  More importantly, everything in these movies is highly stylized, and the plot only makes any kind of sense if you treat it as allegorical.  In "High-Rise," the state of the building mirrors the social order, while Laing's state of mind is linked to his own apartment, full of still unpacked boxes.  Parties operate as displays of power, and various animals seem to be linked to systems of morality.  Also, though the high-rise is billed as being high tech and futuristic, Wheatley sets the film in the 1970s, when the novel was originally written, giving the premise a nostalgic twist.  '70s design elements and culture are heavily incorporated throughout, including a repurposed ABBA song as one of the main themes, giving the universe a unique atmosphere that will probably help it age better than its similar genre contemporaries.  The major exception to this is the main character, bland and anonymous in timeless gray suits, signaling that he's having trouble fitting in. 

Where most of the viewers who disliked the film seem to have run into trouble is with the pacing.  Wheatley tends to skip over considerable amounts of time in the space of a quick montage, and explicit exposition is rare.  The high-rise falls into a state of anarchy very quickly, and all the viewer often has to go on are contextual cues and coded dialogue to decipher various plots.  I don't think it helps that Laing is such a slippery central figure, who is clearly losing his grip as time goes on.  However, Tom Hiddleston's performance is excellent, always maintaining a distance from the viewer, and using the character's ambiguity to his advantage.  It takes a while to realize that while Laing is presented as a potential hero, he becomes at least as demented as anyone else in the building by the end.  You can read the plot as being highly filtered through his unreliable POV, or as just a further extension of his mental breakdown. 
In short, "High-Rise" is a film that I think the viewer has to really engage with in order to enjoy it, and not everyone will.  It's full of little details, ominous symbols and visual motifs that keep coming back in different ways like running jokes.  It's very ambitious in its construction and unapologetically intelligent, tackling social, political and cultural criticisms, and ends with a pointed jab at Thatcherism.  I could compare this to so many other movies, and yet the whole is just so much more cohesive and better fleshed out than most other dystopian films I could name.  I think it could have answered a few of the more obvious questions for narrative clarity - what is going outside of the building? - but at the same time I appreciate that Wheatley kept the focus so tight on a small group of characters.  It allows for the interpersonal drama to really build up to something substantial.

I haven't even talked about the other performances - Evans, Moss, and Miller are all in fine form - or the epic production design that makes the high-rise very much the real star of the film, or the '70s inspired cinematography, or so many other things that help "High-Rise" stand out from the crowd.  But this review is already running long, and if I go on for much longer, I run a significant risk of gushing.  I can't help it.  This has everything I want in a good genre film, and more.

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