I have, since the beginning of his career, admired director Ben Wheatley’s work but always with qualifications. He makes the sort of inspired genre reinventions I’m primed to enjoy but there’s always been something about each of his films– whether it’s Kill List’s disappointing conclusion or Down Terrace’s shapelessness–that left me with reservations. But they’ve always shown great promise and with the release of his latest film, High-Rise, I can finally give in and call myself an unabashed Wheatley acolyte. A deranged and cutting adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 parable of class warfare, it was my favorite film at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and a superior case study in how to adapt difficult source material.
Tom Hiddleston, becoming more of a cinematic treasure with every subsequent role, plays Dr. Robert Laing, a pathologically detached physiologist who moves into a brutalist high-rise apartment building in what looks like 1970s England. The structure is a none-too-subtle metaphor for the class system, with the plebs living in the dingier lower floors, the wealthy living in airy penthouses above them and the all-powerful (at first, anyway) architect Royal (Jeremy Irons delivering his best performance in years) residing at the very top. Laing is situated somewhere in the middle and, as such, manages to waft between floors with relative ease, giving us a vantage point to the rot that festers within this highly artificial system and, eventually, its rapid collapse into chaos and barbarism.
Psychology, sociology, economics, politics…they all go hand in hand in Amy Jump’s perceptive screenplay but, ultimately, the film is less about capitalism, Freudianism or Darwinism than it is about the basic power dynamics that have governed human society for centuries or even millennia.
As the trappings of civilization—power, water, adequate dessert—are cut off, the building’s inhabitants revert to their primal selves and, as such, indulge in all the classic human behaviors—rape, violence, tribalism, looting. Psychology, sociology, economics, politics…they all go hand in hand in Amy Jump’s perceptive screenplay but, ultimately, the film is less about capitalism, Freudianism or Darwinism (though it’s about all those things) than it is about the basic power dynamics that have governed human society for centuries or even millennia. Turns the lights off and the biggest guy will pick up a stick and go after what the little guy has. The stick has become ever more sophisticated but the end result is the same. As such, the building—as with technology and manmade structures in general in Ballard’s books—is both reflection and framework for our collective spiritual distress. It’s no accident that the film somehow manages to come off as both futuristic and retro, simultaneously conjuring a dystopian future and an inescapable past. It’s a distinctive look perfected in the British cinema of the 1970s by directors like Derek Jarman, Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell, all of whom were very interested in the juncture between our past shortcomings as a species and the potentially bleak future they portend. High-Rise also prompts comparisons to David Cronenberg, not just because his adaptation of Ballard’s Crash contains a very similar brand of urban dissociation but also due to its evocation of the Canadian auteur’s Shivers, another allegorical picture that concerns itself with the breakdown of social mores within the confines of an isolated apartment complex. Comparing Wheatley to Cronenberg is high praise indeed and I don’t give it out lightly. While he’s not quite on par yet with the master, Wheatley exhibits a lot of the same precision and intellectualism evident in Cronenberg’s work. High-Rise, with all its free-form anarchy and plentiful hallucinatory imagery, could easily have turned into a self-indulgent exercise in excess. Thankfully, the nightmares and grotesqueries are deployed with tight control, always in service of the ideas behind Ballard’s source material as well as Jump and Wheatley’s contemporary preoccupations. This is not a film about individuals. No one here speaks like a recognizable human being and everyone is a walking cultural signifier. The ideas are all there is, brought to a boil by a heady mix of sound and imagery that lead the viewer to some deeply uncomfortable questions while promising inspired depravities ahead from Wheatley.