The most amazing thing about Ben Wheatley’s High Rise is its tone. Its feeling. Some how it’s a film that’s intense, funny, scary, disturbing, and aloof all at the same time. Sometimes though, that mix gets very dark and makes things a little hard to follow.
High Rise is based on the novel by J.G. Ballard about life in an ultra modern apartment building. Tom Hiddleston plays Robert Laing, the building’s newest occupant, with a nice place on the 25th floor. He’s a doctor and quickly gets involved in some of the building’s social events. Those range from monotonous activities like shopping or exercise, to more crazy things like drinking heavily and having an orgy.
Everything about the world Wheatley creates is cold. The people, the environments, it gives every action a sheen of ominous. And for a while, that’s holding the movie together because between all the parties and bouts of violence, there isn’t a very clear narrative.
Then you start to see the cracks. You see the class system in the building. How the wealthier people live higher and think they deserve more resources than the people who live lower. Everyone is hugely materialistic, too. Laing is aware of this but also oddly mystified by it. He’s enjoying what’s going on, but also has interests on both sides.
Eventually, a sort of mini-revolution in the high rise becomes the catalyst for things to go downhill and the movie has an explosion of madness. Very, very quickly the building becomes an ultra-modern Sodom and Gomorrah, as the sex, drugs, violence and death escalate and become just the way it is.
By this point, High Rise either has you or it doesn’t. The film never really gives a worthy explanation of why these things happen, you just sort of have to buy it and move along. If you do that, the criticisms on capitalism, technology, modern society and more become apparent. But it never ever feels ultra cohesive and digestible.
Instead, it’s the way Wheatley, through his performances, music choices, cinematography and editing, keeps you on the edge of your seat that makes the film oddly enjoyable. There are lots of times that you aren’t quite sure what the hell you’re watching, but it’s always fascinating
While that tone is the star of the show, the cast is also outstanding. Between this, Crimson Peak, I Saw the Light, and Only Lovers Left Alive, Tom Hiddleston is quietly becoming one of our most dapper, confident, and versatile leading men. In High Rise, he’s a great balance of sleazy and lovable, a guy you aren’t quite sure if you like. He’s joined by Sienna Miller, as his beautiful but promiscuous upstairs neighbor; Elisabeth Moss, as one of the kind women from the lower floors; and Luke Evans as Moss’ husband, a total maniac who does his best to steal the movie. And just for good measure, throw Jeremy Irons and James Purefoy into the mix too.
High Rise is a divisive, complex movie that’s going to be tough for a lot of people to watch. On its most basic level—narrative—it doesn’t quite work. On the other hand, the film’s higher functions—theme, emotion, tone—are working overdrive to make something very different. In that aim, it succeeds.
Note: This review originally ran out of Fantastic Fest in September 2015. We’re republishing now for the theatrical release this week.
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