I’m glad I have an excuse to use this picture.
High-Rise was one of my more anticipated films of the year. It boasts a strong cast, a talented director in Ben Wheatley, an interesting yet familiar premise concerning class warfare, and a retro-futuristic aesthetic that appealed to me greatly. Unfortunately, the sum of the film’s parts do not equate to a good movie. In fact, the film’s a bit of a mess.
High-Rise opens post the societal collapse of the luxurious building. We see Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) scavenging through the already ravaged tower. After Laing happens upon a German Shepard and promptly slaughters and cooks it, the film flashes back to three months before the collapse, when life was more typical.
Laing is just moving in to the high-rise, and we get a general overview of day-to-day life in the building. The high-rise is separated into distinct social classes, with the exorbitantly wealthy living at the top and the moderately wealthy living at the bottom. The subtext of this is pretty on the nose, but I thought it was one of the few parts of the film that worked. What is interesting about this is that it isn’t rich vs. poor, as was the case with Snowpiercer. No, High-Rise is simply the extremely wealthy versus the slightly less wealthy, which I appreciated as a unique dynamic to focus on.
Eventually, the tower begins experiencing various technical issues. A light goes out here, an elevator stops working there. Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the architect of the high-rise, tries to dismiss these issues as the building “settling”, but it’s not long before the social hierarchy falls apart and the tower descends into all out class warfare.
At its heart, the film is a story of excess. Partying in excess, drinking in excess, sex in excess, violence in excess. The people living in the tower are already well off, yet the lower denizens of the tower still want more, and the top wants it all. There is a lot great black comedy to be found in this premise, and multiple times I found myself laughing at some of the sheer absurdity of events that transpire.
I really enjoyed the first act, as we experience it mainly from Laing’s perspective. Experiencing this “ideal” lifestyle through the eyes of Laing was a lot of fun. On the surface everything appeared normal, yet the tension and feeling of uneasiness could be felt bubbling underneath all of the instances of partying and excess.
The film has this aura of a dream that is slowly corrupted into a nightmare. This sort of acts as both a compliment and a detriment. It worked well in the beginning portions of the movie, but as time went on it began to feel more disorienting and distracting. The tower reaches its fever pitch and out of nowhere descends into a cluster fuck of orgies and blood. This happens so suddenly and jarringly that the chaos lost all of its impact and felt unearned. The fact that that I was unable to buy into the central conflict of High-Rise is a giant mark against the film.
High-Rise’s cardinal sin is its character work. Or more accurately, lack thereof. There are no real characters to be found in High-Rise, there are simply caricatures who act in whatever way the plot demands of them. When shit inevitably hits the fan, I found myself struggling to care because I didn’t buy into any of the characters’ actions. Things begin to happen with no real rhyme or reason, as the film strives so arduously to act as an example of biting satire, but instead offers heavy-handed statements with no real weight behind them. It’s obvious Wheatley has a lot to say with High-Rise, yet he fails to convey them in any meaningful way.
Which is a shame, as the film wastes its terrific cast. Hiddleston is delightfully charming as Laing, yet he brings this subtle sinisterness to the character that helps foreshadow the total breakdown he has over the course of the film. Luke Evans steals every scene he is in as the hilarious and brutal Richard Wilder, but again if you had to ask me to explain any of his character’s motivation I’d simply have to offer you a shrug. Jeremy Irons was fantastic as the architect, but was severely underused. Elizabeth Moss, Sienna Miller, and James Purfoy were all great as well, if only they had better material to work with.
The film offers some great performances, as well as an amazing soundtrack (seriously, this is another soundtrack I could see myself listening to outside of the film, hats off to Clint Mansell) and visually pleasing cinematography. Wheatley’s camera work and bordering on psychedelic visuals were quite stunning, but it all falls apart when I’m not invested in what’s actually occurring on-screen. There is some hilariously pitch black comedy to be found in High-Rise, but unfortunately the rest of the film’s message is lost in an incomprehensible plot.