Toronto Film Review: ‘High-Rise’

High-Rise TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

'Crash' novelist J.G. Ballard's 1975 tower-block thriller provides a retro battlefield in which Brit genre rebel Ben Wheatley can run amok.

The brutalism begins with the architecture and extends all the way down to the residents in Ben Wheatley’s “High-Rise,” a flashy and frequently incoherent adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s towering 1975 social critique, in which the low-budget British genre innovator seizes the excuse to play with professional-grade actors, sets and camera equipment, while taking a wrecking ball to many of the novel’s brightest ideas. What began as a self-contained allegory on open class warfare becomes a showcase for stylistic anarchy, wherein the ensuing orgy of sex and violence serves to justify a near-total breakdown of cinematic form. Those with an appetite for aberrant creative visions could make “High-Rise” a hot cult property, though this unruly black comedy doesn’t work on any of the levels mainstream audiences expect.

As if taunting our expectations of how the subsequent two hours might go, Wheatley and his screenwriter/wife, Amy Jump (whose less ambitious previous collaborations all clocked in around a more reasonable 90 minutes), open with new arrival Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) covered in blood and spit-roasting a dog’s leg for dinner, before flashing back three months to his move-in date. Normally, what follows would seek to establish how the building’s living conditions could have degenerated to such a state, using this attractive, firmly middle-class 25th-floor resident as its relatable “Everyman.”

Perhaps the British have a more finely attuned internal barometer for reading class, picking up on subtle cues like wardrobe and accent to peg where any given individual falls in the great social hierarchy, but to American eyes, Hiddleston seems anything but average. Naked, as the neatly chiseled character first appears to single mom Charlotte (U.S.-born, British boarding-school-educated Sienna Miller) as she peers down from the floor above, Laing seems posh and superior to everyone else in the building, as if he should be sharing the 50th-floor penthouse reserved for “the Architect,” Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons, right at home playing top-of-the-food-chain types). So what is Laing doing on the building’s middle floor?

Ballard spends a good deal of the book detailing how the massive tower block’s caste system works, explaining the way amenities (including the nearest parking spaces and fastest elevators) are unfairly allocated to serve the most expensive upper(-class) floors, sowing discontent among the poorer, debt-laden residents forced to do without electricity and other perks down below. It’s a logical, intuitively comprehensible system, not unlike the stacked train-car hegemony of last year’s “Snowpiercer,” and it’s easy to imagine why those at the back/bottom would be motivated to fight their way to the top. As if anticipating the current found-footage craze, the book even offers a built-in solution for how it might be filmed, making its most aggressive character, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a camera-toting documentary filmmaker.

Wheatley and Jump would rather set the trend than follow it, as evidenced by their almost allergic resistance to conventional exposition — which is one of the qualities that made their earlier collaboration, “Kill List,” such a slippery and unsettling thing to watch, as they were constantly undermining the film’s own genre foundations. Leaning on Clint Mansell’s lofty pseudo-classical score, the creative couple barrels forward without codifying the “rules” or how audiences will distinguish where they are in the social hierarchy at any given time. Instead, they go almost immediately abstract with the editing, plunging Laing into a series of decadent parties being held on various floors: The upper set wear wigs and cold-shoulder one another to an all-strings version of Abba’s “SOS,” while everyone else snorts coke and picks fights in their riotously tacky lower apartments.

For nearly three decades, producer Jeremy Thomas has dreamt of bringing Ballard’s “High-Rise” to the bigscreen, having first approached Nicolas Roeg with the project years ago. While quite unlike any other U.K. director working today, Wheatley makes an intriguing alternative for the job; he’s every bit the renegade Roeg once was in his ongoing attempt to tear down all the “King’s Speeches” and all the “Kingsmen” of contemporary British cinema. He’s a sneaky iconoclast who works on his terms.

Here, those terms are constrained largely by budget, the director’s biggest one yet, but still so tight it hinders his ability to orchestrate any real combat between floors. Rather, he opts to depict the aftermath, re-dressing familiar sets — including the building’s lobby and 30th-floor swimming pool — after the dead bodies and uncollected trash bags have started to pile up. On paper, “High-Rise” could have been as twisted as “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” or as dynamic as the Indonesian action movie “The Raid,” and though he’s hardly one to shy away from gore (indeed, the film abounds with gratuitous face peelings), Wheatley is coming off the ‘shroom-gobbling psychedelia of “A Field in England,” letting the film stagnate and fester when what it really needs is some sort of alpha-male character to lead the insurrection upon Royal and his upper-class cohorts.

Wheatley seems understandably proud of the microcosm he has created, adopting the metaphor of a child’s kaleidoscope to describe the fragmented way he depicts the subsequent turmoil as social order and narrative logic begin to break down. At last, regular d.p. Laurie Rose has a chance to move (rather than simply shake) the camera, replacing his trademark grit with a wide range of crisp, arresting images with which the filmmakers can free-associate in editing.

But in sheer dramatic terms, it’s a toxic decision on his part to lock Laing up in his room, while our already tenuous grasp of geography and time unravels around him. Apart from the occasional CG exterior shot, everything seems to be happening on the same massive ground-level soundstage, with the actors instructed to behave weirdly: Inexplicably relocated to the penthouse, Miller picks up and bites into a steak, while Wilder’s other mistress, Helen (Elisabeth Moss, with her unconvincing pregnancy bump and even phonier accent), gives birth somewhere in the bowels of the building.

Production designer Mark Tildesley clearly went to town conceiving the handful of public and private spaces intended to represent the entire building, integrating massive support posts and other oppressive architectural touches into the middle of shag-carpeted, retro-styled ’70s living rooms. Traditionally, most near-future fables impose a single, minimalist aesthetic on everyone (as if homeowner codes are so strict, everyone must conform to a single vision), but the takeaway in this period-piece aberration seems to be that the tower’s residents are free to express their individuality and decorate as they see fit — though there’s more clutter on lower floors and such odd touches as fancy pets (even a horse) toward the top.

Since Jump and Wheatley don’t seem particularly invested in Ballard’s underlying philosophy, at some point, the entire metaphor breaks down: After all, is capitalism really the model we see expressed in modern tower blocks? Isn’t it something more akin to communism, with so many people squeezed into identical-shaped residential units? When Baron Hausmann redesigned Paris a century before “High-Rise” takes place, the elites favored the warm and spacious lower floors, while working classes took the stairs, and servants were relegated to tiny, unheated garrets just below the roof. Property values have since flipped, as rich folk install elevators for the now-desirable upper levels, which offer scenic views far-removed from street noise.

But Wheatley’s isolated towers offer no view and little connection to the rest of London. As presented, his social system makes no sense, while Ballard’s commentary on the perils of modern-day convenience mostly falls by the wayside (“High-Rise” is as much about living without such amenities as it is a portrait of enclosed urban warfare). If there are invisible class barriers forcing the neighbors to associate exclusively with those in their same floor group, these restrictions aren’t communicated onscreen.

Whatever broiling tension might be about to explode in the building doesn’t seem especially economic in nature. Rather, one bad apple spoils the bunch — a metaphor reinforced by a stomach-churning tracking shot across the in-building supermarket’s moldering produce section, where a rotten peach ruins the rest. In this case, Wilder becomes the dog-drowning, Charlotte-raping lynchpin in an otherwise functional social order, and the mayhem that results doesn’t resemble revolution so much as all-out anarchy. It could take decades for critics and audiences to appreciate whatever genius lurks behind the chaos, but for the time being, it seems like little more than madness.

Toronto Film Review: 'High-Rise'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (competing), Sept. 13, 2015. Running time: 119 MIN.

Production

(U.K.) A Jeremy Thomas, HanWay Films, Film4, BFI presentation, in association with Northern Ireland Screen, Ingenious Media, Scope Invest Producteurs, S Films, of a Recorded Picture Co. production. (International sales: HanWay Films, London.) Produced by Thomas. Executive producers, Peter Watson, Thorsten Schumacher, Lizzie Francke, Sam Lavender, Anna Higgs, Gabriella Martinelli, Christopher Simon, Genevieve Lemal,. Co-producer, Nick O’Hagan, Alainee Kent.

Crew

Directed by Ben Wheatley. Screenplay, Amy Jump, based on the novel by J.G. Ballard. Camera (color, widescreen), Laurie Rose; editors, Jump, Wheatley; music, Clint Mansell; music supervisor, Ian Neil; production designer, Mark Tildesley; art directors, Nigel Pollock, Heather Greenlees; set decorator, Paki Smith; costume designer, Odile Dicks-Mireaux; sound, Rob Entwistle; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Martin Pavey; hair and makeup designer, Wakana Yoshihara; stunt coordinator, Glenn Marks; visual effects supervisors, Murray Barber, Ronald Grauer; visual effects, Milk, Benuts; special effects coordinators, Stephen Templeton, Kevin Byrne; assistant director, Neil Wallace; casting, Nina Gold, Theo Park.

With

Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes.

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  1. karlosity says:

    I am in agreement with some of the other commenters, this review is a unfortunate misreading of the film. Sounds like he’s reviewing “Zardoz”… though admittedly, Wheatley does slip in a few “nods” to Boorman’s phantasmagoric mid-seventies flick.

  2. Niall says:

    This was the wrong choice for a Ballard adaptation. The protagonist is by and large a passive observer of the chaos that emerges around him. Not being able to get into the characters’ heads the way Ballard did and see how their past experiences and the wider social context of their lives (relationships, family, past trauma, sexuality, technology, expectations, education, biology, media, advertising, etc.) made them susceptible to being seduced by violence and madness resulted in a film where the violence is cartoonishly decontextualised as being down to crudely obvious class distinctions or the unsatisfactorily vague “human nature”. Not giving the protagonist a back story made the whole thing psychologically barren. Not giving him a quest made the narrative leaden. There are Ballard novels which have protagonists that are actively pursuing a “quest” – Supercannes, Concrete Island, Kingdom – which would have fit the cinematic form much better while still allowing a full exploration of Ballard’s ideas.

  3. James says:

    Talking about of Wheatley’s approach to the ideas of the novel seems a bit of a distraction from the real problem, which is his craft. If he had a more developed style then he could achieve the unsettling tone he wants without recourse to jumbling up the narrative in quick, cartoonish scenes. There is a lack of artistic clarity here, a clarity that is clearly evident in Lynch’s films, despite their reputation for being incomprehensible. Lynch’s craft is so assured that you are drawn into his world and accept its strangeness whilst deeper ideas are expressed. Unfortunately the music video montage sensibility demonstrated by Wheatley never allows for such immersion, its just a lazy and superficial way to respond to the ideas of Ballard’s novel. Just look at the way any one scene is shot and staged – surprisingly arbitrary and lacking in precision, seemingly in the expectation that a disorientating editing style would cover up any deficiencies.

    I am British and was rooting for this film to be good, so Mr Debruge’s US perspective is not the issue. Rather, I fear that there are a number of UK apologists who are too forgiving of Wheatley’s inadequacies in trying to laud him as an emerging British talent of international note. If you want that, look to Andrew Haigh, director of 45 years. A very different kind of film, yes, but his craft is not in question and bodes well for the future.

  4. Alex says:

    While I enjoy the interesting material you chuck into the review, and your questioning of the readablility of many of the visual clues for a non-British audience (but then, you Americans do make an awful lot of films yourselves, in many of which quite frankly I can’t understand much of what’s being said – at least the actors mostly speak the Queen’s in this one), I think you’re possibly wrong in looking for a coherent film more conventionally expressed here. I mean, just because the social order is collapsing, why should we expect a fully-realised class warfare, with a resolution, and a strongman alpha-male type to storm the barricades and make everything right again? Isn’t the hedonistic anarchy here presented actually closer to the reality of what we are living now, in a society very lucky and very livable-in compared to many for most people, yet becoming seemingly inexorablly more unequal, less afordable and quite risibly unfair for those without capital. In the film the lower orders are not really revolting and turning to socialism but turning on each other and sanity itself – while also partying – and this is really the only creed we have now. It’s all sex and violence the essential compensations and we enjoy it all really. The Hiddlestone character is biding his time as the earmarked inheritor of the precarious power-position – and we are all encouraged to be more selfish nowadays, to barricade ourselves behind our antivirus and double-glazing and SUVs and the like. But there’s not a lot of politicization, we are basically just flesh.

  5. Ian Thomson says:

    I watched the film last night on its general UK release. I was more than disappointed and thought for the first time of leaving a film early to avoid wasting even more of my life. It was incomprehensible, badly written, reminded me of a cheap 1970s BBC “Play for Today” and wasted most of the talents in it. This might be explained by my ignorance of all of Ballard’s work. I will therefore warn readers that if you have not read the book and are not a sociologist, you may want to watch something else.

    There are a few enjoyable parts. Wilder is a proper 70s Man with plenty to say and do. The architecture is pure multi-storey car park: This morning as I drove past Queens College in Cambridge, I saw its horrible 70s extension in a new, even less favourable light.

    The film ends with the audio from a prickly speech by Thatcher which seems to have been an afterthought to add vital context and compensate for the incoherence of the preceding 119 minutes.

    The other film heavily promoted in our local cinema this week is Eddie the Eagle. That should balance things up nicely.

  6. Kat says:

    I commend you on such a unique perspective. I love the tidbit of Baron Hausmann’s Parisian designs, but you’ve got to acknowledge this as an unrelated anomaly. Universally, lower quaters which are less secure, filthy from street pollution and noise pollution would never be a favorable position for the privileged, going back to medieval civilizations and enduring to modern day Tokyo. Remarkably interesting but by no means relevant to this movie, which isn’t set in Paris during this period.

    You state that this utopia was ruined by one bad egg, Richard Wilder,
    Failing to notice it was actually fractured by the indulgence of the upper level/class.
    The frivolities of the upper class caused the power outage. They created the power outage, and they soiled the peaches. The actual metaphor is not in relation to Wilder and the mouldy peach but rather more socially relevant….
    the greed of few brings burden on the lives of the many. Wilder challenges this tradition of top down affect. The upper classes, blind to their plight, use this uprising of the lower-classes to justify their own debauchery in what continues as mass ignorance.

    You say this social structure is more a representative of Communism rather than Capitalism?

    What exactly is the American understanding of Communism?

  7. Jim Callahan says:

    “…what it really needs is some sort of alpha-male character to lead the insurrection…”

    Seems like you were expecting to watch a way less interesting and ambitious film than the one you actually got. Your suggested ‘improvements,’ and this one in particular, all point towards the dullest, most unimaginative version that could possibly have been made.

    This misreading of the film seems to stem from a misreading of Ballard himself. His books aren’t trying to give some patronising warning about “the perils of modern-day convenience”. He depicts chaos, violence and brutality as natural and unavoidable aspects of human existence, which will find endless new ways of expressing themselves as we continue to evolve.

  8. subvertthestatusquo says:

    “But Wheatley’s isolated towers offer no view and little connection to the rest of London.”

    Eh? There is quite literally a gold rush going on in London, with masive tower blocks going up with seperate entrances for the rich majority. Most people cannot afford them and those who can who are lower down the social scale have the crappy entrance. They are like giant phalic symbols of the rich, capitalism and the increasing wealth inequality. All under the watchful eye of Borris Johnson. This film is extremely relevant to what is going in now in London.
    Seriously when did you last visit London and whst do you know if it’s political structure and economy? Because you sound quite ignorant of it Peter Debruge.

  9. therealeverton says:

    I’m still looking forward to this.

    Regarding the class structure of the tower, I guess it would be easier for us to spot as it is “our culture”. Just as I’d expect Americans would spot the differences in theirs a little easier.

    • I really do not understanfd Variety’s review.The book was written after Ballard’s experience in a civilian civilian prisoner of war camp and was not so much about class as how people de constructed/reacted during the the experience.In the book Laing did retreat to his room-a lot of action took place on the roof-and the inmates of the tower experienced negative changes in their reaction to what was happening-not really sure where class comes into it although they did retain some of their characteristics which could at a stretch be considered class based.To me it was more about exploring behavior as opposed to class construction

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