3 out of 5
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
I viewed; I hemmed; I read other reviews; I hawed. Such is often the case with my response to Ben Wheatley films. Although unlike the pitter-patter of my thought process after his other flicks, post-High-Rise I didn’t feel particularly moved one way or another. And it wasn’t the same as not knowing what to think, which is what the waiting period before I write a review is intended to suss out; it was – it is – pretty much what I just said: I didn’t really feel one way or the other about it. And no review confirming or denying my feelings had me re-analyzing that base sensibility. Thus despite there being quite a bit I enjoyed about this movie – and constructionally loving most of it – I’m letting my gut guide me down the middle of the road to a three star rating.
High-Rise is Wheatley’s and screenwriter Amy Jump’s take on J.G. Ballard’s book of the same name, which I haven’t read but the internet tells me is somewhat faithfully recreated here, plus or minus details which arguably affect the interpretation. The book is now on my to-read list, but my Unread status so noted to make it clear that I’m taking the film on its own terms.
…Mostly. I think the largest difference between this and other Wheatley / Jump productions is that High-Rise feels unpurposefully restrained. Not in terms of structure – as hinted above I loved the way the film cut out moments that peers would likely revel in; whether or not that was a move nabbed from the book, it was confident and bold to film it as such – rather thematically, both regarding the story and character. Again, as I understand it, the ‘cold’ tone was very much a Ballard thing, but Wheatley’s other films have (generally) excelled at maintaining an arm’s distance from the viewer while still enchanting, and I didn’t get that here. And if I may suppose, it would be because our creative were attempting to maintain particular beats from the source material, which – ironically, for a story somewhat about a descent into ordered chaos – makes it never really let go, or find its own direction. It is beholden to something. Wheatley’s first adaptation? I think so.
The family-less Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into an under-construction high-rise, a stone tower in a lot of cars – to which the jobbed dutifully march to get to work in the morning – and other under-construction (though not yet tenanted) high-rises, and not much else. The skyline is populated by cranes instead of trees. This isolation is doubled-down by the building’s funneled down version of society: Upper class on the upper floors, lower class on the lower floors, the latter residents having to deal with the excess refuse from the higher-ups, blocking the trash chute, as well as other various power struggles. But Wheatley and Jump don’t dawdle on this intensely, nor do they revel in their Shining / Clockwork Orange 70s setting beyond the setting showcasing the fantastic production design and the script not having to deal with cell phones or internet. The movie looks exactly the way it should: Glossy and shoddy at the same time; high budget and low budget. You understand the entire theme just by looking at it.
And in a way, that seems to be the intent. The dialogue helps to add flash to the characters – such as lower-floored Luke Evans’ aptly-named Wilder, a floundering documentarian – but Evans’ best moments are when he’s all gusto and grunting, captured by Wheatley’s tweaked eye which nudges many of the film’s sequences into the same dreamlike territory as A Field in England. Hiddleston also is most effective with his silent responses to events around him, or the mixed look of panic and determination when scurrying through the halls. His dialogue functions much like that of building overlord Anthony Royal, played by Jeremy Irons: The words don’t matter; it’s all tone, and posture.
Events in the high-rise come to a boiling point after a culture clashing pool party, and things rather amusingly descend into straight insanity thereafter, or seeming as such as it’s cut together. Wheatley’s skipping over all of the inbetween moments to just pause on the absurdity is one of the movie’s highlights, but it can be divisive if you’re expecting something more linear and not ‘experiential.’ However, again again, because we have a script and characters to adhere to, for every gloriously creepy slo-mo dance routine, we also have to pause and hear some dialogue from the primaries, which never moves things along quite like it seems like it’s intended to. And/or we get some truly odd blitzes, like Sienna Guillory’s query after her horse ride. (Perhaps I’m missing some subtext there…)
Because the trailers for High-Rise looked so good, it made me want to catch up on all that Ben Wheatley stuff I’d been intending to get to. So I did. And I think I gained an appreciation for his style. Now having ‘earned’ my viewing of this film, that look is what remains stunning: It is, visually, Wheatley’s best and most beautiful pic. The design and shot construction are perfect; the score (Clint Mansell, with a good dose of Can and a great Fall song on the end credits) phenomenal. Amy Jump’s script – acknowledging people have been trying to get this made for decades – isn’t exactly uneven, but it feels like a compromise between her usual sensibilities and attempting to capture elements from the source material, and this compromise ultimately makes the film drags its feet, not making it too far out from its starting point.