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.