The feeling of being alienated from a group perceived as “better” can elicit the most raw of emotions. I see it in my students when one thinks they are not only being excluded from a clique, but believe they have become an object of ridicule. Ben Wheatley’s latest film, High Rise presents characters in this situation, but also places the audience there as well through intentionally obtuse storytelling styles.
Based on the darkly satirical novel by J.G. Ballard, the film centers around Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a doctor who has purchased an apartment in a revolutionary new high rise complex. The building is mixed income, with the poorest residents living on the bottom while the wealthiest reside above the clouds on top. Laing floats somewhere around upper middle class and is very much excluded from the exclusive, extravagant parties in the penthouse. There’s also Royal (Jeremy Irons), the crippled architect of the building who seems to simultaneously loathe his fellow aristocrats while never desiring to visit those at the bottom. Finally, there is Wilder (Luke Evans) a roughneck documentarian that lives in the squalor of the bottom floors. Very suddenly life devolves into tribal warfare among the occupants, resulting in murder, rape, and finally roasting the dog.
Ben Wheatley is a director I have come to love in the last few years, My first exposure to his work was the dark comedy Sightseers, the story of a star crossed couple who bond through murder. This was followed by A Field in England, a psychedelic horror story set in the midst of the English Civil War. This year I finally managed to visit his first major work, Kill List, a horror film about the tragedy that befalls a hitman. All of his work is complex and challenging, often upsetting, but ultimately rewarding for the ideas they put forward.
From the first moments of High Rise it is apparent we are entering a world resembling our own, but not. When the full heft of the madness goes down we lose all contact with the world outside of the high rise. It’s very easy to start to wonder how the external world would react to the brutality going on inside. But the film is not attempting to ground itself. This is Swiftian satire that is going to clobber you over the head with most extreme exaggeration of the ideology it wishes to rail against.
Every visual aspect of the film is perfection. The 1970s are wonderfully reproduced and then twisted into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Mark Tildesley, the brilliant production designer behind 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is responsible for taking these mundane spaces and transforming them into grim abattoirs.The most chilling aspect of the film is how easily the characters transition from annoyance with others misuse of the garbage chute and jockeying for prime parking spaces to planning raids on lower floors and abducting residents to force them into servitude.
It would be easy to take High Rise as a meditation on the corporate gentrification going on in major cities across the United States and in London. Or it could be seen, as the film teases in its final moments, as a prelude to Thatcher era class warfare. But I see the source material and director Wheatley’s take on it as deeper and more contemplative of our most primal and basic selves. High Rise is a film about the default tribalism society falls into when a crisis overtakes us, and how those who endure and retain some semblance of dignity must step away from the crumbling world around them.