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Film Review: High-Rise

High-Rise (2015; Directed by Ben Wheatley)

Neurological lecturer Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is highly neutral and self-contained. A fellow resident of the high-rise apartment tower into which Laing moves (following the barely-discussed death of his sister) dubs him “profesionally detached”, and therefore both perfectly adapted to the pressures of high-rise living and inherently, quietly dangerous. Laing demurs an initial objection to this characterization but ultimately cannot deny its accuracy. As life in the skycraping apartment building, with its comprehensive amenities and vertically-integrated class stratification, spirals into post-apocalyptic anarchy, Laing soldiers on with heroically blinkered conformist quotidian normality. While his increasingly desperate neighbours loot the in-building supermarket for remaining scraps of food, he fights one of them off to leave with a can of grey paint. It’s just the right shade for his walls, and also for his face.

British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, in his other notable films A Field in England and Free Fire, has demonstrated a penchant for claustrophobically brutal, violently disturbing bottle-episode movies (he’s remaking Rebecca next, with a country manor house as the bottle). High-Rise fits nicely into those artistic parametres, but is an altogether stranger, wilder, more ambitious, and more challenging piece of work. Adapted by Wheatley’s collaborating screenwriter Amy Jump from J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel of the same name aimed squarely at the dispiriting spread of grey Brutalist tower blocks across the urban sprawl of the Britain of the author’s era, High-Rise preserves the mid-’70s setting and aesthetic of the novel, seemingly for the director’s own reasons (he’s big on period pieces, and revisited the clothes and cars of the 1970s in Free Fire) than for any text-related necessity. The choice is just one of many that makes this an eerie, defamiliarizing, singular cinematic experience.

High-Rise is an entirely more mannered arrangement of Snowpiercer‘s linear socioeconomic divisions, with that film’s class-stratified train cars rendered inert and stacked high to colonize the sky. Resembling Ed Harris’ isolated, worshipped inventor/conductor in that film, the tower’s mastermind/stand-in for an absent God is white-clad savant architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who dwells in the building’s penthouse (“hovers over the place like a fucking albatross”, one resident puts it), which is equipped with an edenic terrace garden to please his not-so-beloved wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). Dreaming of a complex of five towers surrounding a lake like an open palm, Royal can hardly conceive that this open palm of impeccably intellectualized urban planning might be clenched into a fist. Royal tells Laing that he conceives of the building sociologically as “a crucible for change”, but change from what and to what? The perceptive doctor notes that his architectural plans resemble “the unconscious diagram of some kind of psychic event”.

That psychic event, the amalgamated crushing pressures and alienated tensions of vertical urban living, is soon made manifest in a violent, survival-of-the-fittest upheaval, pitting the wealthy residents on the upper floors against the working-class dwellers of the high-rise’s lower reaches. But first, Laing must meet those residents. Soon after moving in, he becomes sexually involved with his upstairs neighbour Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), who has slept with most of the building, it seems; one such liaison has left her with a precocious son named Toby (Louis Suc), and Laing becomes a reluctant but firmly kind father figure to the boy. He makes the acquaintance of a married low-floor couple at one of the building’s numerous parties: restless and confrontational television documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), who is often left alone by her wanderlusty husband, lonely and depressed with their brood of children. At an altogether grander party thrown by Ann Royal at which all of the attendees but him are decked out in powdered wigs and 18th-century dress clothes like ancien-régime aristocrats (a trifle on the nose, but a nice image), Laing is ridiculed for his sartorial faux-pas by the guests, which include an arrogant colleague from his school of physiology named Munrow (Augustus Prew); in retribution, Laing will trick Munrow into thinking he has a fatal brain tumour.

Laing tries to hold himself apart from the roiling tensions ripping the uncomfortable community of the building asunder, skipping over the growing fissures on his way to and from work but increasingly unable to remain above the furiously grasping fray. Hiddleston, dashingly handsome and coolly dapper but with that fiendish Loki twinkle everpresent, leans bravely into the disequilibrium inside and increasingly outside Laing. He’ll suggest hidden griefs and guilt – at the loss of his sister, at his spiteful role in Munrow’s dark fate – with a look and an inclination of his head. There’s a furtiveness and buried romanticism to his Laing, a willingness to connect across the chasms of dehumanizing alienation of his milieu. “Your tenancy application was very Byronic,” Helen tells him when they first meet, a nod to either hidden depths of sentiment or at least an ability to suggest them.

Evans is another standout as the marginalized bully Wilder, while Moss and particularly Miller impart a woman’s perspective on the rigid social order of the high-rise and the consequences of its breakdown. The production’s budgetary limitations don’t bring down the overall vision, the production design, or the VFX, but they do show a bit further down the cast list, where finer and stronger character actors might have filled in some of the more minor but nonetheless vital resident roles in a larger production. More supporting players like James Purifoy, who plays a rich asshole with such florid smirking superiority, would have been appreciated, and would have raised the quality of the proceedings. One might also wonder if a stronger cadre of actors could have smuggled in more empathy and emotional involvement in what narrative there is to be found in this pageant of cold, misanthropic cynicism about the predatory baseness of human nature and the empty callousness of social environments. I can’t speak to whether that was the thrust of Ballard’s text, but it is certainly how Wheatley’s film chooses to approach the author’s ideas.

As a pure cinematic conduit for those ideas, High-Rise works very well, as Wheatley and his cinematographer Laurie Rose craft a compelling visual context for Ballard’s themes as transmuted through Jump’s screenplay. The Brutalist concrete skin and bones of the high-rise’s corridors, apartment units, and exterior balconies takes on differing moods and tones in different parts of the building at different points in its community’s dissolution. The sprawling parking lot (in which Laing confesses to have thoroughly lost his car) transitions from uniform order to war-zone chaos, as Foteini Vlachou points out in her essay on the film in Blind Field. On the middle and higher floors like Laing’s and Charlotte’s, they have a chilled breezeway feel, like the pyramid-penetrating halls of Egyptian tombs. On the hardscrabble lower floors of Helen and Richard, they are dim warren-like tunnels, although the busy packrat detail of their apartment feels nearly homey. The Royals’ suite is of course all light and sumptuously appointed furnishings, not to mention the idyllic garden complete with goat and horse (not that things go well at all for animals in this building once things fall apart; as in many arthouse films, cruelty to animals is used as a commonplace thematic marker for the inhumanity of the people who have power over them).

But also hanging in the Royals’ suite is one of Francisco Goya’s immortally unsettling and mysterious Black Paintings, Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat). Superficially a marker of Royal’s wealth and importance (Laing glances at it and wonders aloud whether or not it hung in a museum; it is, in fact, at the Prado in Madrid), the painting is symbolically foreshadowing the selfish, stupid grasping of the building’s residents that shatters the fragile balance and consensus of its social equilibrium. It also tonally anticipates the affect of Wheatley’s film once that balance is shattered; the figures in Goya’s painting are dumb and credulous, peering in cretinous awe at the deep black ungulate lord, a mob of ugly misshapen sheeple craning their necks at the malevolent demagogue they follow and worship in their provincial superstition.

The residents of the building in High-Rise become a dumb, destructive mob, but of what He-Goat-like force of dark ego are they acolytes, if any? What drives them to anarchy, chaos, rape, and murder? For Goya in the milieu of traditionalist, hyper-Catholic Bourbon Spain with its witch-hunts and inquisitions, the He-Goat was always the Great Enemy, Satan, whispering poisonous temptation into the supple, gullible ears of God-fearing Castilian peasants, Andalusian farmers, Catalan labourers, and Basque and Galician fishermen. In Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, is the looming albatross-god, Royal, that dark force of influence and corruption? J.G. Ballard has a dark and critical view of technological progress and modern urbanism, but does he (or Wheatley and Jump on his behalf in this film) intend to equate urban planning and high-density residential zoning with the ubiquitously evil Devil? Is the He-Goat any of the archetypal characters in High-Rise? The unleashed id Richard Wilder, who is also perversely the lonely voice of righteous reason and the crusading journalist seeking to expose dark, uncomfortable truths? The purified ego Laing, crossing and transcending rigid class boundaries in his professional detachment while studying his neighbours like the subject brains of his métier? Is it the embodiments of the alternating ur-tropes of womanhood, the maternal (Helen) and the promiscuously sexual (Charlotte)?

The wellspring source of the ill humour and inhuman predation that characterizes human nature in High-Rise is not any being, mortal and sentient or divine and ineffable. It’s a psychological perversion at our core, that is at once an instinctual urge to survival and a self-sabotaging aggression and competitiveness, peevish and essential at the same time. Wheatley and Jump translate Ballard as suggesting that modern high-density urban life nurtures a seed of inhumanity until it grows into a flowering fern of atrocity. But they also reference a charged spectre in the history of British political and social life, from the period just following the publication of Ballard’s mid-’70s novel, that is representative of the inhumanity and atrocity that the author fretted about.

High-Rise closes with the audio of a Margaret Thatcher speech decrying state-run capitalism and lauding private ownership as the surest guarantor of political freedom. As the capstone of a highly thematicized narrative about the collapse of a microcosmic society (which, in Thatcher’s infamously soulless Toryist utterance, there is no such thing as) that is entirely the work of beknighted private enterprise and one of its glorified Olympian heroes of vision and genius, Thatcher’s words have an intentional dark irony. But in these final moments, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump suggest that although Thatcher was just too late to play She-Goat to this particular grasping mob, her government’s domestic legacy of a hollowed-out, diminished social fabric in Britain (whose chaotic-evil inheritor is the hollow eagle of Brexit) was the inevitable successor of the unleashed forces, social and existential, that Ballard pinpointed in High-Rise. The freedom engendered by these capitalist forces can be a towering prison-like asylum for the gradually insane and it can be the rolling plunder of an unceasing class conflict that only the upper-class is equipped to fight and to win. In the gilded cage of High-Rise, there is nowhere to hide from all of that terrible freedom.

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Categories: Art, Film, Politics, Reviews
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