British cult director Ben Wheatley is, to put it mildly, an acquired taste. You need a thick concentration and a good ear for thicker English accents to follow his early low-budget crime comedies, such as Down Terrace and Sightseers, which swerve from casual slang around the kitchen table to crass ultraviolence in minutes. At their best, Wheatley’s films are fascinatingly bipolar, the jokes so bleak and bitter it can take one a while to realize he is directing comedies. At their worse, his films are indecipherable and dull. (I find Kill List, one of his most critically revered thrillers, to whimper along interminably until a couple of bloody late-picture bangs.)
To understand and appreciate the filmmaker, though, one needs to realize that Wheatley’s hoarse anti-heroes work under a strange logic. Character motivations are often obscure, which can make the moment they set off on a killing spree (for instance) seem random, when in fact, it is the end goal all along. Wheatley’s new film, High-Rise (Rating: B+) is his most accomplished feature yet. It is also the filmmaker’s most commercially friendly, although that has more to do with the cast (which includes Tom Hiddleston), the scope (adapted from the ambitions of a J.G. Ballard novel), and the budget, a climb from his previous ventures. It also, unsurprisingly, operates on an internal logic that goes mostly unexplained, taken from Ballard’s text and applied to Wheatley’s macabre worldview.
The film takes place during the first three months of tenancy for Laing (Hiddleston) at a 40-storey high-rise building. He is a physiologist who decides to recover from a divorce by going to many parties in his building and summoning women to bed, instead of unpacking the hills of boxes that fill his apartment. Laing lives on the 25th floor, which means he quickly becomes a part of the social circle among the residents surrounding him, such as the neighbour above, aimless Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and her curious son, Toby (Louis Suc).
Laing also befriends Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the genteel architect of the building whose blissful penthouse suite, with enough room for servants to tend to a garden and Royal’s much younger wife to go horseback riding, may as well be heaven on earth. Of the lower floors, Laing finds a friend in the very pregnant Helen (Elisabeth Moss), the only soul in the building that looks just as miserable as him. Helen’s macho husband Wilder (Luke Evans) films documentaries and sees in the building a vital subject for his latest project.
Nevertheless, the characters remain less essential to High-Rise than the space, a looming beacon of modernist architecture that Wheatley often captures at oblique angles that, rightly, exaggerate its menace. The setting is mid-1970s, when Ballard originally conceived the source material. While the retro sets, character neuroses and musical cues (including one unexpectedly gloomy ABBA cover) capture the era, the aura of the comedy-thriller is distinctly postmodern. For a film that takes great joy in displaying splashy decade-centric signs, High-Rise doesn’t feel like a period piece.
In the titular location, dogs are seen as status symbols, while children are abhorred, as they get in the way of nasty, adults-only parties. The class dynamics essential to Ballard’s wicked satire are still omnipresent, expressed in ways both observant and obvious. The rich lounge casually in tuxedos in one scene, then partake in an orgy shortly after. Inhabitants on the lower floors become energized when they throw cake and other eats off their balconies, letting the mess accumulate on the luxury cars parked underneath.
It isn’t long before order breaks down in the towering suburbs: people get vicious and violent in dimly lit supermarkets as they grab for the last remaining items; dogs drown in swimming pools; security or police presence is non-existent. Some may find the class warfare a bit too literal and the descent into mass mayhem elliptical. Others will just enjoy indulging in the strange plot turns and Wheatley’s off-kilter directorial choices, and forget less about the thematic foundations. These viewers should find much value in the production design, layered with character-related details. Wheatley situates the characters in spaces that express a trapped paranoia: Helen has her cluttered bedroom; Laing peers emptily into a hall of mirrors in one of the high-rise elevators; Toby views the violence and vulgarity through a champagne-hued kaleidoscope.
Amy Jump, the director’s wife, wrote the screenplay and had the challenging role of sculpting a narrative from Ballard’s text, which is more memorable for its gloomy language and social criticism than its plot dynamics. At occasions, she fails to let High-Rise stand as its own thing. The lack of dialogue in the source material ensures that some of the verbal character introductions are unwieldy and unnatural. Still, she does start off the film by adapting the novel’s bleakly funny opening sentence – “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…” – so Ballard purists may forgive.
Regardless, several of Jump’s changes work. In relation to the novel, Jump’s screenplay gives more room, if not much more, to the depleted women of the high-rise. Meanwhile, the inciting incident from the novel – where a man commits suicide, tumbling from the top of the high-rise – moves to the middle here, ensuring we get a greater build-up of the socioeconomic tensions in the microcosmic space. (The scene, cutting between a drug-fueled dance party and the figure’s weightless tumble – the latter resembles the Mad Men opening credits sequence – sets the right tone for the unruliness and lack of tonal synergy in the film’s latter half.)
Wheatley vividly renders this descent into chaos, presenting images that are both unsettling and intoxicating at once. He ultimately settles more with the former adjective, letting the characters’ ennui seep into the film’s colour scheme in the second hour, diluting the splashier tints from the first half. Meanwhile, Clint Mansell’s versatile score, heavy on minor keys, is just as adept at capturing the simmering moods and anxieties that pervade the space. (Some segments of the soundtrack are just tinny echoes, which evoke the rattles from a boiler room down the hall.)
The cast is uniformly good, with many portraying a similar yet distinct shade of urban dysfunction. The same enigmatic qualities that Hiddleston brought to the recent mini-series The Night Manager are here, although the British actor wears a less fashionable white dress shirt and black tie. As Wilder, the determined filmmaker who slowly loses his sanity, Evans gets the film’s most invigorated part. Aided by the strong, internalized performances, Wheatley ensures we watch in horrific amusement as the psychological pressures of the building compress to a breaking point.
As the high-rise dissolves into disarray, the director’s instincts sharpen. Wheatley traps the characters in rooms and costumes that acutely depict their damaged psyche. This spatial coherence ensures he can jump from upper floors to lower floors without letting the drama – or pitch-black comedy – become overly dizzying. That may be the director’s greatest talent here: he keeps playing with High-Rise‘s different tones, spaces and character moods, without letting the film’s structure topple into muddled mayhem. He is, in that way, a much more adept architect than Anthony Royal.