Ben Wheatley’s “High-Rise” never wavers. For 118 minutes, the film commits to grotesque satire through its contrived concoction of lush images of capitalist excess. This is a message film constructed as mic drop, a manifesto designed to illuminate the evils of capitalism. The music pulses, loud and screaming, the characters devolve into bleak and blunt forms, and the message is, if nothing else, always sent. Sometimes this relentless pulsing creates brilliance. But beneath the uneven surface of Wheatley’s film is an abiding unease that never stops, a grinding of gears unmetered by the filmmaker’s garish, intentioned impulses. I admire the verve, even as I question its progression — it’s difficult to produce disarray on this scale, which still sometimes convinces.
“High-Rise” is an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 sci-fi novel of the same name, and despite the film’s long development history, the threads of Ballard’s story remain relevant. The televisions of yesterday are the screens of today; economic inequality endures; Western society remains capitalistic and thorough in its chokehold. In evoking the past, “High-Rise” names this kaleidoscope of overwhelming modernity ‘the future,’ and Wheatley’s editing collaborator and screenwriter Amy Jump revels in the potential of filmic image and structure to illuminate this overwhelming future. Knowing ironies abound, and nearly every line of dialogue is granted symbolic importance. Boxes are unopened, water leaks, birds shit on sports cars, heads are stuffed into televisions. “High Rise” is hell-bent on exposing the corruption of the high-rise for what it truly is: a behemoth prison crushing inhabitants in the vice-grip of semiotics and utility failure.
The story begins with Dr. Robert Laing’s (Tom Hiddleston) big move to the high-rise. After a recent tragedy, he’s come to the building for a fresh start. He’s quickly assimilated into the complex’s strict hierarchical system, splitting time between the lower-floored, lower-class Wilder (Luke Evans) and Helen (Elisabeth Moss), and higher-floored companions including socially active Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and white-suited architect Royal (Jeremy Irons). Each character sets their own collection of ideological associations and strains upon the cool Laing, and soon he and everyone else begin to lose their fragmented, collective minds. What follows is ugly chaos.
The aesthetics of “High-Rise” cannot be separated from its populating figures, as power in the film is often constructed on the basis of aesthetic gestures. The building relies on the hard-nosed tradition of fascist architecture, unharmonized with natural light. At night, the endless undulation of partygoers begets their ceaseless hedonism, and the vast parking lots surrounding the building rebuff any possibility of natural life. Residents in sharp business attire leave for work, with Wheatley and cinematographer Laurie Rose effectively capturing their mechanistic exit with lurking, tracking shots. The focus is on bodies; backgrounds are left to rot.
This is a visual world of well-dressed ruin, and in one of the movie’s least subtle and most effective nods to class breakdown, Hiddleston’s Laing arrives at a top-floor party with a bottle of wine. Wheatley and Rose capture the rich décor of the apartment with a single shot, tracing Laing’s uneasy entrance against the costumed partygoers, who dress as colonial barons, wigs and all. Laing’s sharp suit, which before marked him as upwardly mobile and aesthetically desirable, suddenly becomes a black mark of nouveau riche tastelessness. The colonizers laugh like hyenas at his dilettante fashion, and he’s thrown from the party and belittled for bringing cheap wine. This entire sequence — captured in clever continuity of limited takes — is hellish in its alienation, but not nearly as hellish as the unpleasant bedlam to come, delivered with a half-wink and half-stare before mirrors desperate to break.
The movie’s ideology arrives bluntly. At its best, it is in step with its pop-anti-capitalist imagery. The characters carry the shifting weight of symbolic intention, from the muted naturalism of Elisabeth Moss’s Helen to the raw Darwinistic predation of the upper floor residents. This allegorical conflict is at its most intriguing before the chaos begins and the narrative becomes truly unhinged. Collision of class and gender produce a motion sickness heightened by Jump’s coiled dialogue, Mark Tildesley’s nauseating production design, and Wheatley’s vertiginous camera.
Given the richness of the images and the vitality found in much of its ideology, the sum of “High-Rise” ought to be greater than it is. This is a movie unafraid to capture the blood of machinery, the animalism of the free market, and the discordant plans of powerful men through a lens of pop music familiarity. The possibilities of this satire-happy cinema are thrilling, but they are also debilitating to the film’s final form. The determined, gleeful chaos of it all produces a sensorial indulgence that privileges aesthetics over narrative. This is a valid choice to make, but buries the film’s initial themes of class difference beneath a burden of relentless chaos.
Within Wheatley and Jump’s singular vision of capitalistic suffering is a fascination with the signifier and signified that often leaves character interest and thematic variance in the parking lot dust. Eventualities and revelations are anticipated before they arrive; brutality and violence make their point, but also lose their meaning in the face of so much garish loss. To see the seams of literal hierarchy fall apart seems necessary, but in neatly and relentlessly destructing the Jenga mess of capitalism, Wheatley also damages the validity of Ballard’s story. If hedonism and chaos are inevitable, character revelation ought to follow that same chaos beyond the parameters of unchecked devolution.
In suggesting so much chaos and pain with little narrative recourse, “High-Rise” fails some of its most essential characters. Portraits turn to stereotypes, and Laing’s humanity is lost amidst the mess — the filmmakers have already departed for more provocative pastures. Wheatley is right to fixate on the kaleidoscope image, but forgets to rotate the device back to its promising beginnings.
Like his protagonist Laing, the filmmaker pursues “a logic more powerful than reason,” but in obsessing so carefully and particularly on objects of expectant fascination, “High-Rise” remains firmly logical, tied to its own hierarchies and concerns. All this convincing uneasiness; not enough revolution.
Contact Connor Huchton at chuchton ‘at’ stanford.edu.