This take on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel by director Ben Wheatley has proven a polarising viewing experience, in much the same way Ballard’s novels seem to divide readers into two very distinct groups; those who love them and those who loathe them. Variously described on the one hand as “chilly”, “alienating” and “an incoherent wreck of a movie” and as “coolly immaculate” and a “masterpiece” on the other, the truth lies, at the risk of sounding clichéd and non-committal, somewhere in between. Whilst I have not read the novel from which the film had been adapted, I am familiar with other works from Ballard and there is no doubt that this film captures the hyper-stylised dystopic visions that are synonymous with his work. Much of Ballard’s writing attacks the existing structures – social, political, cultural – that serve to propagate inequality and individualism and that is very much the case here.
The eponymous tower is a social experiment of sorts; a building that, quite literally, mimics the social hierarchy of contemporary western society. Although clearly a vision of the future in the sterility of the architecture, the production design very much reflects the 1970’s setting; the clothes, the cars, the furniture and even the fact that everybody, including nine-months pregnant Helen (Elisabeth Moss), smoke continuously. The wealthiest residents live on the highest floors, while the middle-class are confined to the lower levels, with the building’s architect and overseer Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) occupying a vast penthouse atop the tower, complete with expansive courtyard. Not long after Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddlestone) takes up residence in his 25th-floor apartment, a series of power outages become increasingly frequent and elongated and it isn’t long before the building – which houses 2000 residents – descends from civilisation to barbaric hedonism and plunges into chaos.
Anybody acquainted with Ballard’s work should know what to expect and the opening line of voice-over dialogue – …as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months – ensures that anybody who chooses to stick around for the duration has no real cause for complaint about the content that follows. The hunter-gatherer savagery that ensues should come as no surprise as the residents adopt a kill-or-be-killed mentality as a means of survival. In fact, the events are not dissimilar to those of Jean-Luc Goddard’s Week-End in which a trip to the countryside is thwarted by an endless traffic jam that evolves into chaos, cannibalism and murder. The problem with High-Rise lies primarily in the pacing. So much time is spent introducing the various occupants (and perhaps necessarily) that when the darkness (both literal and psychological) descends, it happens at a rapid montage-like pace that serves the needs a of feature-length running time but suggests the descent into madness happened over a matter of hours rather than months.
Despite the violence and depravity that ensues, there is a (very) dark humour that pervades the goings-on and makes it possible to endure the extreme narcissism and moral decay of the building’s inhabitants. Whilst mostly reprehensible types, there are some likeable characters in the mix, such as young Toby (Louis Suc), the shy young son of Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a goodtime girl whose free-spirited ways mask her inner demons. Perhaps the most enjoyable character of all though is Fay (Stacy Martin), the young woman who works the checkout at the supermarket on level 15. With obvious connections to Freudian theory, High-Rise serves as a premonition of the selfish society that has, to a large degree, manifested itself within western culture. Sure the nature of the events that take place here are extreme, but they serve as a metaphor for a society in which self-indulgence and nihilism have reached epidemic proportions. Technically and aesthetically, the film is splendid and whilst there are some performances that are less than convincing, the likes of Miller and Hiddlestone deliver in their respective roles. Darkly subversive, High-Rise is a melding of 70s nostalgia with a deranged, dystopian vision, all accompanied by a stark version of Abba’s SOS (courtesy of Portishead) that is as much unexpected as it is effective.