Like Cosmopolis before it, Ben Wheatley’s film High-Rise depicts the claustrophobia inherent to the top one percent. Both films are adaptations of novels—the former by Don DeLillo, the latter J.G. Ballard—whose plotlines hone in on enigmatic and morally compromised individuals of significant wealth. David Cronenberg‘s take on Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson, is notable for its play-like quality, with the bulk of the film taking place in the confines of a stretch limousine. The space of High-Rise is a little bigger, with the individual levels of a luxury tower representing class stratification, with the wealthiest people taking up the eponymous high rise. This leaves those less fortunate to reside in the lower levels, and strict prohibitions forbid them from mingling with the elites several flights up. Yet like Cosmopolis, in which protesters surrounding the limousine reveal how class anger can permeate seemingly insurmountable barriers, High-Rise gets its tension from the rage fomenting right below the high-rise.
Wheatley and Cronenberg’s films are ripe for a more thorough comparative study. However, one major way the movies differ most strikingly is in their music. Cosmopolis‘s score by Howard Shore and Metric is a brooding amalgam of electronic textures. Like Cronenberg’s picture, Shore and Metric’s music prefers a slow build; rarely does the soundtrack come to a cathartic peak. The music is meant to keep the listener constantly unsettled. In contrast, Clint Mansell‘s score for High-Rise opens with orchestral grandeur, as strings paint a vivid picture of the lush interiors of the high-rise. This opening number, “Critical Mass”, is slightly deceptive: no other track on the High-Rise soundtrack ever hits this sweeping high, although the finale, “Blood Garden”, does come to rest on a resounding, full-orchestra note. Much of High-Rise (OST) broods in the way that Shore and Metric’s Cosmopolis (OST) does, but Mansell is far more successful in meeting the challenge that many soundtrack albums fail. High-Rise (OST) is both a perfect complement to its cinema and a collection of songs that stand on their own, inviting listeners to dream up movies in their heads as they listen along.
This is hardly surprising coming from Mansell, who, since his landmark work for Darren Aronofsky‘s Requiem for a Dream, has risen to become a pre-eminent name in film music (if not the pre-eminent name). His union with Aronofsky has proven particularly fruitful; particularly, The Fountain is the artistic high-point for the both of them, and (as I have argued) for film music in the past decade. Mansell has done well to branch out from his collaborations with Aronofsky, scoring everything from rote shoot-’em-ups (Smokin’ Aces) to moody indies (Last Night). High-Rise (OST) is not only a fine addition to his growing oeuvre, but it also ranks among his best.
Mansell’s most effective move on High-Rise (OST) is the use of accidentals and off-key figures. At the end of “Silent Corridors”, which is driven largely by a hushed arpeggio, a shrill piccolo comes into the mix and lays out some notes that clash with the track’s key signature. A similar thing happens in album centerpiece “Danger in the Streets of the Sky”, which transforms dazzlingly from a somber number to a reprisal of the “Critical Mass” theme. When the woodwinds interrupt the overall tone of the music, they arouse the sentiment that all is not well in the titular high-rise. In this way, Mansell’s score channels the unease that drives Wheatley’s film and gives it a compelling musical incarnation, rather than simply providing a sonic spice to the movie.
There are parts of High-Rise (OST) that could work in a conventional feel-good movie, but Mansell never lets those moments linger. “The Evening’s Entertainment” opens up with a delicate alternative take on the “Critical Mass” theme, only to come to a nervy conclusion with another piercing woodwind figure. The late-album gem “Royal Flying School” concludes with a drum solo, a rarity not only for Mansell but also film music generally. (Following Antonio Sanchez’s innovative drum score for Birdman, there is good reason to believe other composers will pick up his mantle.)
The only odd move Mansell makes happens on “The Vertical City”. The song opens with a direct quotation of his score to Aronofsky’s Noah, itself an excellent soundtrack. The quotation fits in well with the rest of the High-Rise music, but its inclusion is curious given how adept Mansell proves himself at tinkering with the main themes he wrote for this collection. The transformations that the “Critical Mass” melody undergoes over the course of these 12 songs is thrilling enough that the inclusion of a previously used motif proves unnecessary at most and slightly distracting at worst.
Yet one odd moment in a meticulously composed soundtrack can be forgiven, which is certainly the case with High-Rise (OST). This is film music as it’s meant to be done: sufficient to enhance a motion picture, but strong enough to stand alone. Channeling the capitalist dread that directors like Cronenberg and Wheatley explore in their recent films, Mansell has written the soundtrack for the end of the one percent. Whatever one’s opinion of High-Rise the movie is, High-Rise (OST) should appeal to audiences both in the cinema and outside of it.