I hadn’t heard much about “High-Rise” until I saw the trailers, and yes, I mean that in the plural, when seeing other movies here in London. When seeing “The Hateful Eight” the “High-Rise” trailer was cut to suggest a violent, hero-driven film, and when I was waiting for the ultimately tedious “A Bigger Splash” to start, I saw a trailer for a film that looked stylish, arty, weird and cool.
Both advertisements proved to be correct.
I have previously reviewed director Ben Wheatley’s work here, and if you read the writeup for “Sightseers” (and the link is just there, why not have a look?) you’ll see that I embraced the oddness and the dark, dark humor. Juggling the tone of that type of movie is difficult, and with minor niggling exceptions, Sightseers got it right. You might not like the film, if you don’t like that type of film, but if you do, he nailed it.
This one, his higher budget reward perhaps, is bigger. Not a bigger film in scope, in fact it takes place in mostly one location, but this is a wider release. Wheatley’s previous films have put him on the UK radar and indeed, the 2013 “A Field in England” was the first UK film to be released in cinemas, on DVD, on TV and video-on-demand on the same day. So this time, a bit of money was thrown at a deserving artist and indie-success levels of results were expected. But, while there are some effects and some names to catch your attention -Jeremy Irons to top the list, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, who has been doing a bit of work over here in the UK post-Mad Men, and in the lead, rising star Tom Hiddleston), this is still an art film that is allowed to take chances. And indeed it does.
Based on the 1975 novel by bummer futurist J.G. Ballard, “High-Rise” stars … well, a building. A Brutalist, recently-completed-as-part-of-a-new-1970s-urban-planning-development (in the middle of suburban nowhere) 30+ story concrete high rise, self-contained with a gym, a pool, a grocery store, everything one needs, where the balconies are stacked upon themselves, giving residents downward views of their neighbors, including newbie nude sunbathing afficionado Hiddleston. He is a middle-class (middle? upper middle? these distinctions later become crucial) doctor, with issues we suss out in the form of his unpacked boxes and tense composure.
Meet the neighbors
Hiddleston’s doctor, Robert Laing, is not going to have much time to interact with the initially delightfully askew residents before things go very wrong, as we learn from the startling opening flashforward scene. Shit is going to get real – no, surreal, like, Detroit real, PDQ, so we watch his initial integration with a mixture of dread, wonder and most likely fascination at his cerebral calm.
Between Hiddleston, who is a dreamy automaton with a brain, fascinating to watch and easy to side with, if we knew what side he was on, and director Wheatley, who as noted, embraces the strange, and the amazing production design by Mark Tildesley, a frequent collaborator of Danny Boyle, you will be hooked. The look of the film is arresting, planting you in the 70s but not as you ever imagined it.
A lot of times there is a fine line in set, costume, art design between referencing the past and making a set look like just that: an overly referenced set. This indulgence also occurs a lot in the overall look of “future stories” (jetpacks! jumpsuits!) and although this tale is set in the past, there is a cold, streamlined futuristic feel to “High-Rise”, balancing out the platform shoes, lighting fixtures and squared-off cars. In both of the trailers I saw, it was clear that whatever the story, and I went in knowing nothing, it was going to have a distinct look. Stunning work here (and let’s mention Cinematographer Laurie Wilson, who did “Sightseers” and “A Field in England” as well, and mostly knocks it out of the park) – among other beautiful set pieces that play off of the architecture, the filming of an accident in delicious slow motion (no spoilers here, my friend) at which I marvelled.
So, I loved it, right?
Not really. Let me excuse Tom Hiddleston from any blame – I know the name and I know I’ve seen him, but when I saw the first trailer I, and my date, thought for a second it was Michael Fassbender as the lead. Love me some Fassbender, but a new leading man is here. Hiddleston is required to be an intelligent observer that believably engages with this odd new world and indeed sinks in, while maintaining his slightly outsider status. This, he does. I don’t understand everything Dr. Laing does or believes, but I know he does. He is beautiful to look at, sure, but more importantly, like a Fassbender or a Saoirse Ronan (oh, what the hell, read a nice review of her early work where I mention her charisma and her visage), he is interesting to watch. Pretty is as pretty does, as a developmentally disabled stalker once told me while I sat on a bus bench somewhere in Alabama, but a good face doesn’t need to evoke romance or lust, it should engage. Hiddleston carries this film, without saying much.
So, I was on board for the first third of the movie, meeting the residents as our Dr. Laing does, making my judgements (we in the audience knowing things would turn bad, so that added to the enjoyment) But getting from Point A: odd building but hey, Sienna Miller lives above me and looks fab in retro gear, to Point Z: anarchy, was, not a twisted path, but a way too greased-up one. I never quite believed that the incidents that ensued would ensue as they ensued (apologies to my 8th grade English teacher for that sentence). The plot and how it ensu– evolves, is neither surreal enough for us to toss out our notions of behavioral norms, which is the goal, or realistic enough for us to believe this would ever happen given the perfect storm of situations. I get that the latter is never the goal of the movie; while set in England, somewhere, this is clearly a different world, but the motivations need to fall somewhere in fantasy or twisted reality.
Fear the future (past?)
The story’s message, from the author J.G. Ballard, is, this story of upheaval is only a kaleidoscope’s turn away from us, as we live today (today being 1975, where you’d be reading this on papyrus). I should note, in doing some research as I am not familiar with JG Ballard beyond Empire of the Sun, this novel was on that mythical shortlist of books too difficult to capture in film form – too weird. Amy Jump is the screenwriter, and had a mighty task to wrestle with. I’m inferring that Ballard wasn’t bothered with some of the shading needed to later construct a workable script (nor should he have been). But after the wonderful intriguing first Act, the magic starts to unravel. Because of the major change we are meant to see happen, we needed to have a grasp of the more personal motivations of these residents – for that is all we meet in “High-Rise” aside from an odd medical student – and that character grounding is lacking beyond “we have kids and are working class, and we hate the rich who live (literally) above us”.
Hiddleston walks into what we are later meant to judge as a simmering class-warfare fight waiting to pop. Is he the catalyst? Or is it the power cuts, endless concrete walls and somehow confusing parking lot? His smooth groove really just wants to get on with his solitary life, stir up the ladies in his slim suit, slice open brains, and ultimately, while we follow his journey, so do we. The “get on with it” bit. The intriguing promise of a tower full of quirky types and the subsequent sorting out of who will be trouble soon becomes tedious. Aside from want-to-be documentarian Wilder (Luke Evans, told to turn it up to 11), who leads the disgruntled, and the top of the internal food chain, building architect Mr. Royal (a steely, good Irons, and btw, have you clocked the character names?), the other characters are ciphers and it’s hard to care when the fight is a huge SYMBOL. Do you GET IT?
Miller is great, she does blasé smoking better than anyone and makes you want to know more about what she’s doing there, but Elisabeth Moss is set up as an…earth mother? Paragon of feminine patience? and is not given enough to do. More time is spent on foreshadowing things that seem to have already happened, glimpses between interchangeable side-burned baddies and cuts to unsexy orgies and fights between people we can’t distinguish in the murky lighting (Laurie Wilson, I just complimented you but now I’m hedging) There are a few clever lines in the muddled ending bit that tease with renewed promise and then… power out.
So it’s meant to be a fable? I love those type of films. “The Fisher King” was a fable, so too, “The Green Mile” (help me in the comments, think of some other good ones). Those films knew the responsibilities of those parameters, set up their world, unleashed the drama, and delivered. “High-Rise” takes a convoluted route to make its point, losing the viewer for a good chunk in craziness for craziness’ sake on the way. Oh, it was all about the future rise of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain? Ok, then. Still disappointed.
Should you see it? Yes. It’s beautifully styled, it’s a walk on the wild side, did I mention Hiddleston? and any movie that doesn’t apologize about eating a dog deserves your (grudging) respect.
available on demand now, limited US release May 13, 2016
A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.