[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. High-Rise opens today in limited release.]
Filmmaker Ben Wheatley seems to delight in fucking with his audience, and his latest feature High-Rise, is no exception. The filmmaker’s work consistently sets viewers on edge, and his source material, J.G. Ballard’s sci-fi novel about class warfare, seems like an ideal match for the director. Unfortunately, despite rallying his biggest cast yet, Wheatley seems to be at a loss with how to communicate his ideas about class disparity beyond poorly delivered broad strokes, and it reduces High-Rise to an absolute chore. While some may see some method to Wheatley’s madness, High-Rise comes off as a poorly constructed creed rather than a crafty assault on the senses.
In 1970s Britain, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has just moved into a state of the art high-rise development. It has everything a person would need, including social strife. The middle class tenants like Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) resent the upper class dwellers like Pangbourne (James Purefoy), and vice-versa. Laing is able to stay removed from the fracas for a bit, and strikes up a relationship with single mom Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) and Richard’s pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss). However, the bitterness between the classes eventually explodes into all-out chaos.
But by the time the movie devolves into an orgy of blood and fucking, it’s too incomprehensible to matter. When characters say things like “a modernist by trade”, you know you’re in trouble because we’re leaving them behind as relatable people who do understandable things, and turning them into mouthpieces for a dissertation on a particular subject. You can’t track the characters in High-Rise because there’s hardly any set-up or payoff to their actions beyond the larger motivations of their class. You know the rich people are going to be against the poor people, but the particular rationalization of their individual actions is an afterthought. When an actress comes into a room and proudly declares, “Who’s going to fuck me in the ass?” you know you’ve left the realm of reality, and that the movie is just making statements.
If there were any rhyme or reason to what Wheatley was putting together, it might make for a rewarding experience, but his desire to put his audience on edge instead just knocks them off the cliff entirely. It’s like the awful ending of Kill List extended out to the majority of a picture where a vague outline of an idea stands in for actually providing some kind of logic. I don’t mind that Wheatley wants to get surreal, but he throws out reality entirely, so there’s nothing to hang onto. It pushes all of the work onto the audience and gives him all the credit for any perceived genius. He’s kicked over a can of paint and expects us to say it’s a painting.
There are moments when Wheatley’s talent for pitch-black comedy comes into view, and it’s a glimpse of a better film, one with a handle on what it wants to say and how it wants to say it. While Laing is attending an upper class’ costume party where everyone is dressed like 18th century French aristocrats is a little on the nose, it at least signals some thoughtfulness about the material. But more often than not, the darkness gets away from him, and it’s more about killing and eating pets than the wicked sense of humor Wheatley displayed in his better movies.
It’s frustrating to watch Wheatley waste such a talented cast, especially when they’re saddled with awful dialogue that turns the subtext into text. People spout off about “containment” and “detachment”, and these statements might fit organically into a better film, but in High-Rise, they land with a thud. No one gets to play a character because characters have understandable behavior, and High-Rise is borderline incomprehensible, not because it’s complex, but because it’s a jumble.
A sci-fi tale about class warfare should disorient the audience, but Wheatley goes about it in the wrong way for High-Rise. It’s an important topic, but so many of his choices (especially the oddly timed needle-drops) are distracting and take away from any investment or consideration of the class warfare within the story. With uninteresting characters, garbled subtext, and poor construction, High-Rise crumbles.