The works of British filmmaker Ben Wheatley (“A Field In England”) have been a mainstay at Austin, TX’s Fantastic Fest film festival, and this year is no different. His latest film, “High Rise” (adapted from the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name) debuted on September 26, 2015. And like his previous works, it’s a fascinating mess, albeit with the biggest budget he’s worked with yet.
Tom Hiddleston stars as Robert Laing, a doctor recently moved into a luxury, high rise community in 1975-era England, replete with an Olympic size swimming pool and even a grocery store. Mild mannered at first glance, he soon falls in with his hedonistic neighbors (including the flirtatious Charlotte Melville, played by Sienna Miller), who binge on cocaine and participant in rampant orgies. He’s soon introduced to Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building’s architect, who lives at the top floor with a luxurious apartment replete with garden, sheep and even a horse.
Royal explains he designed his apartment building as a social experiment that he calls a “crucible for change.” But the truth of the matter, is that his building layout creates class warfare: the rich occupy the higher levels in more opulent arrangements, and soon Laing and his middle and lower class neighbors must deal with power outages and rationing. But while Laing is able to keep calm in the midst of chaos (initially at least), his neighbor Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) is fraying at the seams.
Wilder is a documentary filmmaker, determined to expose the mistreatment of lower class tenants, but his violent behavior undercuts any altruistic need to push for change. And it’s that dichotomy that runs throughout the film: it doesn’t matter if its upper or lower cast, there aren’t any characters to root for in this movie: largely petty, selfish creatures who enjoy inflicting cruelty on each other (and animals) for most of the film’s running time. This makes for moments of queasy unpleasantness. And Laing feels too vague and spineless to ever relate to as an protagonist, or even an antihero.
Of course, this message was imparted in Ballard’s original novel, but Wheatley discards the fine print and goes off like a bull in China shop, reveling in scenes of violence and sexual decadence. As the film moves on and the high rise begins to rot from the inside out, nearly every character wears clothes soaked with blood. Subtlety is not his strong suit. But visually it is a raw, yet impressive feast, with the film’s 70’s dystopian feel drawing inspiration from “A Clockwork Orange” in it’s garish and gaudy set design and color scheme.
One could argue that Wheatley and his wife Amy Jump (who wrote the screenplay) were so liberated by a larger budget that they lost perspective on keeping a coherent narrative, but in truth, Wheatley has always been less concerned with a solid plot or direct themes, than mood, texture and visuals, all driven by characters with skewed perspectives of the world. Counting on a more traditional or loyal adaptation in his hands would be futile.
He’s made “High Rise” in his unhinged cinematic image, and it is quite the garish fun house mirror to our current world of the 99% and instant gratification through digital luxuries. Ballard was in many ways prophetic, and while Wheatley’s film is too much of a good thing, and too messy to fully satisfy, you certainly can’t look away.