Ben Wheatley may just be the most exciting genre director to arise in the 21st century. Whereas many of his contemporaries, even the good ones, are content to traffic in nostalgia for their influences, Wheatley is determined to give us something new. Five films in, he already has a cinematic voice strong enough and singular enough to let you know it’s him, while still honoring the traces of DNA in his work belonging to the likes of David Lynch, Ken Russell, David Cronenberg and Nicolas Roeg, And with High Rise, the director made what may be his best film yet.
High Rise is an apocalypse of madness, a symphony of blistering, perverse chaos, utterly un-classifiable and utterly entrancing. It’s weird. Deeply genuinely weird. It’s based on a novel by J.G. Ballard — which should be enough to know exactly what kind of trip you are in for. And Wheatley, working with his biggest budget and most star-laden cast, thumbs his nose at delivering anything approachable, simple or audience-friendly. Instead he’s made a love it or leave it plunge into button-pushing insanity. As you can probably guessed, I loved it.
Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is a young doctor who moves into brutalist concrete tower newly constructed in some unnamed part of London in the 1970s. Settling into a room in the middle of the tower, he discovers that the building is divided by class — the lowest classes stuck in the lower floors, the richest classes occupying the top floors, with Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building’s designer, living in the penthouse — complete with a massive garden, sheep and a horse on the roof.
Laing has barely settled in before he becomes an object of fascination for almost everyone in the building, seduced by his immediate upstairs neighbor (Sienna Miller) and courted by both Royal and Wilder (Luke Evans), a burly, married machismo-dripping documentarian and philanderer who has become the de facto alpha of the lower rungs. Laing’s smooth passivity and low-key charm makes him a neutral point in the ever-growing war between the two classes, a wobbly tete-a-tete burdened by conflicts over faulty power and uneven distribution of amenities, not to mention the seemingly endless number of parties the residents throw to alleviate their boredom. It all comes to a boil after a suicide and a raid on the pool for a children’s party, after which the tower block descends into chaotic swirl of orgies, shared madness and violent civil war. Even Laing can’t protect himself from the insanity overtaking his new home.
It’s not at all straightforward as it sounds. Characters become compulsively unable to leave the or call the cops, a collective, spontaneous hysteria guiding them into a complacent acceptance of the mini-dystopia that have fashioned for themselves. Indiscriminate sex is had, and blood is shed, vile, violent retribution heaped on opposing members of each class. (Pity any animal you see on screen.) Food dwindles, garbage piles, lights go out and the hallways fall into disarray, everyone barely a step above zombiedom as they navigate this vicious, anything goes world. There is no reason for this — it just happens. And it really does just happen, the movie compressing all the events leading to destruction and hellish rebirth into a quick montage of action, a surreal movie trailer in the middle of its own movie. Before that, characters are there normal strange selves; after they become a strange new normal.
Wheatley is wildly, formally experimental, playing with editing, visuals and pace to bring this high-rise to life. One of Wheatley’s notable signatures is the random appearance of slo-mo, which takes root here to intoxicating, iconic effect: Hiddleston dancing, with a group of flight attendants, with zero context within the story; a man plunging to his death as kids jump into a pool. Wheatley brings back the psychedelic, kaleidoscopic effect he used in the climax of his surreal art-film A Field in England for a kill scene, and an amazing, gorgeous cover of ABBA’s “SOS” courtesy of Portishead underlines another scene.
Textually, High Rise is blisteringly satirical, a savage, righteous attack on class inequality and the shittiness of human nature. It’s a vertical Snowpiercer, only even more challenging to the senses. Wheatley ends the film with a an audio recording of Margaret Thatcher, the infamously conservative British prime minister, underlining the film’s themes of the rich literally on top of the poor, using more than their share of the available resources, looking down — again quite literally — upon the “lesser” classes. In this concrete pressure cooker, this microcosm of modern life, tensions mount, a coiling spring until they finally obliterate everyone on screen, sparing no one — not the regal, urbane Royal, not the gruff, masculine Wilder, not Wilder’s pregnant wife (Elizabeth Moss), not the children, not the coolly detached Laing, our relative audience surrogate.
The cast is terrific, nailing their roles with surgical precision. Evans is essentially Oliver Reed reincarnated, a brusque, confident, room-filling presence; had this movie had been made in the 70s, then Reed would have been Wilder. Hiddleston, though, crushes the role; Laing is a passive observer, a protagonist who largely avoids driving the action of their own story, one of the hardest kinds of roles to make interesting and the actor, with his particular brand of snaky, mysterious charm just nails it, making Laing a watchful, calculating presence, coiled and ready to spring.
I like weird movies, and High Rise is weird. It’s an alienating picture, almost intentionally so. It dares you to get on its bold, daring, violent wavelength. It’s not going to be to everyone’s liking, but for those willing to go with the flow, this is a masterwork.