Director Ben Wheatley’s gorgeous and disturbing “High-Rise,” based on J.G. Ballard’s classic 1975 novel, isn’t science-fiction the same way that, well, the novel wasn’t quite science-fiction.
Indeed, it’s a period piece, albeit one that opens with the titular building in (literal) bloody chaos, garbage in piles, small fires everywhere, a tattered and worn Tom Hiddleston performing the novel’s infamous opening line: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
Shot on location in Northern Ireland and with everyone in sharp, eye-popping period clothing and hair “High-Rise” is faithful to the Thatcherism-predicting novel (not for nothing does the Iron Lady’s voice make a cameo).
Its cold savagery and its juxtaposition of extremities — emotional, visual, physical — are more or less intact, even to the point of the narrative losing focus about two-thirds of the way through and devolving into, in the words of Wire’s 1977 song “Reuters: “looting….burning…rape.”
Three months before the dog-consumption, Hiddleston is Dr. Robert Laing, a doctor moving into the 27th floor of a massive apartment. Young, pleasant and sharply dressed, yet somewhat polite and distant in the class British manner,Laing’s sister has recently died, he is looking for a new start and a flat on the 27th floor seems a pretty good get. The building’s social structure reveals itself to Laing quickly.
The higher floors are for the wealthy, such as building designer Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his snobbish wife Ann (Keely Hawes, who has aged into Kristin Scott Thomas somehow). Single mother Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) lives on Laing’s floor; the lower floors are occupied by poorer, “proper families” with children such as the documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder (a terrific Luke Evans), his wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss, and not enough of her). Where Royal’s apartment is opulent to the point of insanity (a horse on the roof), Laing’s is modernist empty and the Wilder’s is cluttered with life (kids, plants) and toys.
While Laing goes to work at a hospital, the building is clearly designed to be isolating — one can exercise and grocery shop within its confines. With bright light, solid colors and sharp compositions, Wheatley and cinematographer Laurie Rose gives everything a Kubrickian pop and feel (it is not impossible to imagine Alex and his droogs as the children left at the end of the film).
But things slowly, then quickly, devolve, entropy increased like a snowball down a hill. Laing plays a nasty joke on an annoying colleague with deadly results. Power goes out on the lower floors, making it hard to keep house. A pool party for the rich is crashed by Wilder and children. Kids stop going to school. Violence flowers. Everyone pretty well loses his or her mind. The police don’t bother to investigate — outside of the building, all is normal. Inside?
Chaos, as they say, reigns.
Except it is a little fuzzy exactly why it all goes terribly wrong. In the book, Ballard could get away with making this a gradual thing, not to mention allegorical, but film is a less forgiving medium when it comes to motivation and Wheatley isn’t in a position to fudge this. Which he does.
We are never entirely sure not only why the wheels come off, but why they come off in such spectacular fashion. Does the mob go wild just because that is what mobs do? Is it class stratification, the higher up you are, the more you see the world below as insects? Do the stresses of consumerist culture make us all a few electricity-free days away from eating the dog?
So enjoy “High-Rise” for the glorious cinematography, a 40-year old vision of a world gone mad and such 70s post-modern rockers as Can, Amon Duul and the Fall (not to mention Abba) on the soundtrack. Squirm at the sometimes sadistic violence and lines such as “Now he’s raping people he’s not supposed to” and yet another couple of dead dogs (by now a Fantastic Fest tradition, somehow).
And, yes, you get to see Tom Hiddleston dance.
“High-Rise” screens again 5:15 Monday.