There’s a moment in High-Rise when all semblance of order and propriety finally breaks down — and it’s set to a Portishead cover of ABBA’s “SOS”. It’s a wonderful sequence, editing together scenes from multiple areas of the titular high rise, shedding light on how this disintegration of social order is playing out.
It’s also a great encapsulation of the burgeoning careers of British cult director Ben Wheatley and his wife and screenwriting partner, Amy Jump. Like previous Wheatley films, Kill List and A Field In England, stylistic flourishes are frequently utilized to portray waning sanity in visceral, stunning ways.
The protagonist of High-Rise is a young doctor, Robert F. Laing (Tom Hiddleston), who moves into a high-rise complex designed by Royal (Jeremy Irons), an architect with grand dreams who takes residence in the top floor, replete with all the trimmings including a rooftop garden and a horse for his wife.
Citizens of the lower floors are not as lucky, with power outages frequent and luxury non-existent. Laing, a resident of the middle floors, spends his time in the building’s gym or at riotous parties with his newfound neighbors, Wilder (Luke Evans) and Charlotte (Sienna Miller).
As is to be expected, class struggle soon turns the building into a wasteland, seen briefly in the opening moments when Laing is roasting a dog over a fire he’s built on his balcony. Although it’s a simplistic comparison, given that High-Rise was adapted from a ’70s novel by postmodern sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard, it’s not far off to say that High-Rise is like Snowpiercer, only vertical.
However, the comparisons end there. Where Snowpiercer is an action film through and through, High Rise is a modern ‘high society’ surrealist film in the vein of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel hiding under the visage of ‘thriller’. Though it’s a good marketing strategy, audiences expecting thrills will be hard-pressed to find many. Fans of A Field in England, however, will likely be thrilled by the logical continuation of Wheatley’s style into a realm that’s more big-budget and visually driven than his previous work.
With High-Rise, Wheatley seems to slip comfortably into the greater responsibility offered by a bigger budget. At no point does it feel like Wheatley is compromising. All of his style and narrative and thematic focuses are present, but heightened to a more polished level.
High-Rise, however, has one glaring flaw: its length. The surrealist elements, which manifest in the increasingly depraved and nonsensical actions taken by the characters as the tower descends into chaos, are fun and interesting at first, but at two hours long, they quickly begin to lose steam. Whereas the film starts with a plot, it feels like it devolves too much into chaos, and as a result those moments feel devoid of narrative context. When they work, they work. When they don’t, it feels tedious.
The acting from most of the characters is playfully insane, and the visuals are gorgeous, but the soundtrack from the usually-excellent Clint Mansell doesn’t feel very impactful. At times it even seems divorced from the feel of the film, which may have benefited from a more electronically-forward score like Mansell’s work on Contagion to fit the retro-futurist theme.
All in all, however, High-Rise succeeds as a portrait of a filmmaker unafraid to move in new directions without compromising the essence of his style. The film’s missteps — the narrative’s inability to decide on wild, freewheeling surrealism or traditional film plotting — are confusing and hold the film back from making the kind of statements about the fragility of social systems that it tries to.
Despite this, it’s still a very fun film, bolstered by good performances, great visuals, and a clear desire to push the boundaries. High-Rise may not reach the heights it aspires to, but the chaos along the way makes for a good time.