×

Toronto Film Review: ‘High-Rise’

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

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

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0462335/

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.

More Film

  • Ryan Simpkins

    Ryan Simpkins Joins Fox-Disney's 'Fear Street' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Ryan Simpkins has joined Fox-Disney’s second installment of 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment’s “Fear Street” trilogy, based on the novels by R.L. Stine. Leigh Janiak is helming all three films. Previously announced cast includes Gillian Jacobs, Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, McCabe Slye, Kiana Madeira, Olivia Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Julia [...]

  • MPAA Logo

    Motion Picture Association of America Hires Emily Lenzner as Communications Chief

    The Motion Picture Association of America has appointed veteran public relations executive Emily Lenzner as its executive VP of global communications and public affairs. She will report to Chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin and oversee the trade group’s communications team in the U.S. and internationally. Lenzner will start Aug. 1 and be based at the MPAA’s [...]

  • See Taylor Swift Unveil Feline Moves

    See Taylor Swift Unveil Feline Moves for First Time in 'Cats' Behind-the-Scenes Teaser

    Taylor Swift fans finally get to see some of the results of all those years spent studying her roommates Meredith and Olivia — and also, not incidentally, some time with a choreographer — in a new behind-the-scenes teaser for the movie “Cats.” The three-and-a-half-minute featurette has footage of Swift striking crouching feline moves as well [...]

  • CGR’s Immersive Premium Format Set for

    Immersive Theater Technology Set for US Debut in Los Angeles

    French multiplex company CGR Cinemas has selected the Regal LA Live as the first U.S. theater to use its Immersive Cinema Experience technology. The ICE format will be unveiled in the fall at the downtown location in a partnership between CGR and AEG. The companies made the announcement Wednesday but did not reveal which title [...]

  • Amazon Developing Original Series Based on

    Amazon Studios Buys 'Selah and the Spades,' Will Develop Original Series (EXCLUSIVE)

    Amazon Studios has acquired worldwide rights to “Selah and the Spades,” a gripping look at a prep school drug dealer, Variety has learned. The film marks the feature debut of writer and director Tayarisha Poe and had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it was a favorite with critics. Amazon has [...]

  • The Ultimate Guide to 2019 Comic-Con

    The Ultimate Guide to 2019 Comic-Con Parties and Activations

    Hollywood is heading down the California coast to San Diego because It’s time for 2019 Comic-Con International. The annual cosplay celebration officially kicks off tomorrow, July 18, with a preview happening tonight. Here, Variety gives you a guide to this year’s parties and activations. Make sure to check back for updates. Wednesday, July 17Amazon Prime [...]

  • The Wound African Cinema Berlin Film

    Finance Forum Brings African WIP Into Focus at Durban FilmMart

    The 10th edition of the Durban FilmMart, which unspools parallel to the 40th Durban Intl. Film Festival, will feature 10 fiction and 10 documentary works-in-progress taking part in its annual Finance Forum. The leading co-production market on the continent, the Forum brings together producers, distributors, sales agents, broadcasters, funding bodies, and other industry players from across the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content