High-Rise‘s urban apocalypse is laid on thick. One wishes for a modern existence that is not quite so alienating.
High-Rise, an adaptation of the J. G. Ballard novel of the same name. Directed by Ben Wheatley. At the Kendall Square Cinema and Cinema Salem.
By Peg Aloi
The opening line of J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise refers to a man eating a dog. Sure enough, within the first minute of Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation we see a man roasting the leg of a dog over a makeshift spit after he had just patted the animal on the head. That man is Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), and the cheerful voice over narration suggests that he is adjusting to some changes in his living situation, with “things getting back to normal,” while the visuals depict some sort of grisly urban post-apocalyptic landscape.
Laing is shown navigating his ruined apartment in bloodstained clothing, calmly surveying the damage. His neighbor Steele (Reece Shearsmith), invites him for a drink, and displays a corpse (another neighbor, we learn later) wearing a television on its head. Sprightly yet melancholy classical music is playing. Text on the screen invites us to begin making sense of the anarchy with the words “Three months earlier.” Apparently, three months was all it took for things to progress from high-pitched normal to bloodthirsty chaos. But, given Wheatley’s penchant for unmasking the brutality lurking beneath the veneer of English life, we get the sense that steady decay, not sudden cataclysm, is the cause.
The high rise in question is a 40-story building in the style once called Brutalism. It’s one of a small group of concrete behemoths set in a vast open area; the huge parking lot full of cars of oddly indeterminate vintage (though let’s assume it’s 1975). The implication is that everyone who lives here has to drive into London for work. That includes Laing, whose job seems to involve teaching medical students about psychopathology by dissecting human heads in front of them. Laing is sunbathing on his deck with a book one day (literally: the book is his only garment) when he’s seen by the neighbor above, Charlotte (Sienna Miller). She’s a dismissively flirtatious woman who is having drinks with Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), an unemployed freelance television producer who hungrily propositions her.
Charlotte invites Laing to her flat for a party that night, a raucous affair where he drinks heavily and meets, among other people, Steele (a surly orthodontist), Cosgrove (a TV news broadcaster who carries a small video camera with him everywhere, one of the film’s many nods to contemporary social ills), and Wilder’s very pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), a kind, friendly woman who clues Laing in to the strange social pecking order that governs life in the high rise.
Later that week, Laing meets Charlotte at the pool, and is summoned to the side of the building’s architect Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives in the building’s penthouse. Royal’s office is a plain white space disguised by a quaint thatched cottage, amidst what look like endless acres of herbaceous borders and farm animals, including a horse ridden by Royal’s wife (Keeley Hawes), a Marie Antoinette-like character who enjoys dressing like a 17th century milkmaid. Royal, impressed by Laing, invites him to his wife’s party, neglecting to say it’s a costumed affair. Laing feels out of place and is tossed out by the same burly henchman who summoned him to meet Royal earlier.
The social hierarchy of the high rise is dictated by what floor one lives on, which is based on one’s socioeconomic status. Laing is described as “hiding in plain sight” and someone who “knows his place.” He reveals to the gym’s masseuse that his sister has died recently; this information spreads effortlessly, including to Charlotte, with whom Laing begins a casual affair. We assume his melancholy is what prevents him from unpacking the massive cartons stacked in his flat and what prompts him to paint his walls the same shade of pale grey as the sky outside his window on the 25th floor. There is no singular event that catalyzes the high rise’s decline into violence and mayhem, but discord accumulates: power outages, hoarding, trash piling up, cars being vandalized. The decadent parties continue, and Laing is seen frantically pursuing his routine, driving to work, rowing at the gym, and screaming out his windows.
The script is adapted by Wheatley and Amy Jump (Wheatley’s co-writer and editor on Sightseers, A Field in England, and Kill List). Ballard’s novel has a variety of narrators and points of view, but here everything is seen through the sad, stoic eyes of Hiddleston’s Laing. He is something of a lothario, and an occasional peacekeeper, but mostly he is an observer: he stands aside as darkness descends on and then envelops the building’s denizens. Laing has a grudging respect for Wilder, who decides to embark on a sort of gonzo style documentary chronicling the breakdown of services in the building. The presence of video cameras sounds an oddly prescient note, as is the have/have not division of the residents, a problem facing many large cities, London in particular.
One must be very familiar with English culture to really engage with Wheatley’s worlds. Ballard’s strange speculative fiction, which dissects levels of British culture, past and present, is hermetic in that way as well. Still, towards its end, High-Rise begins to feel exhausting. Repeated viewings have not lessened my enjoyment of its striking imagery: often surreal, frequently disturbing, and generally stunning. The soundtrack is brilliant. But the film is often unwieldy, as if Wheatley had taken on something a bit too ambitious. Ballard’s parable is complex, so having the story presided over by the inscrutable Laing has the virtue of giving the film a unifying structure. But that means we are often left wondering about Laing’s connection to the characters around him, many of whom he barely interacts with (not that Hiddleston is not delicious to watch at all times). One wishes for a bit more of the others’ stories; or perhaps one wishes for a modern existence that is not so alienating.
Wheatley’s films have felt messy before: Down Terrace is rather hard to follow, as is A Field in England (I’ve read more than one critic suggest that one should take mushrooms before watching the film, just as several of its characters do). But he can be an agile artist, riffing with nuance, locating hidey-holes of symbolism, twisting our perspective just enough to be unsettling. To use a recent example, Sightseers is a masterwork of visual economy. Yes, the plot has its twists and turns, but the movie has a relatively straightforward narrative. When slow motion or other elaborate camera trickery is used, it is with an artful precision. But these same camera conceits in High-Rise often feel cluttered and untidy, as disordered as the high rise itself becomes over time. Wheatley, a very English filmmaker poised for international recognition, seems equally at home with both sparse and elaborate narratives. High-Rise, though, is chockablock with befuddlement, overflowing like the building’s trash chute with decadence and confusion. A climactic moment portrayed with kaleidoscope visuals comes off as obtrusive and dizzying. But that may be the point. Given where this high rise (a discomfiting metaphor) is headed, the yearning for a pale grey sky-colored wall to stare at for a few hours makes sense, if only to clear your mind.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for Patheos.com called The Witching Hour.