English director Ben Wheatley has forged a reputation with a duo of heralded horror offerings, 2011’s cryptic thriller Kill List and the 2012 pitch-black horror-comedy Sightseers. But, to be frank, his brand of scary does nothing for me. While my peers oohed and ahhed over that pair of devotedly bleak pics, I yawned and wondered what all the fuss is about. But I had renewed hopes for his latest, in large part because of the cast, which includes Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Elisabeth Moss.
Based on the 1975 novel by J.G. Ballard, High-Rise stars Tom Hiddleston as a middle-class doctor/eligible bachelor whose life is forever changed when he moves into a newly built apartment block. The titular high-rise boasts in-building daycare, a grocery store, gym, pool and a rooftop garden where its architect’s bored-to-derangement wife rides a full-sized white horse. It’s the height of sophistication, if you live on the upper levels. But “down in the shadows” are the lower floors with the lower-class people and their grubby children who dare to play in the communal pool. Power and water outages turn sniping and snarking into kidnapping and murder. And it’s up to the good doctor to play mediator between the warring classes.
Let me say right away that Hiddleston is intoxicating here. Slid into a snug suit, he gambols, dances, fucks and poses like he’s in the world’s most elaborate cologne commercial. Even when he’s knee-deep in disco-style debauchery, he’s delicious.
Likewise, there’s a seductive, swanky elegance to High-Rise. Wheatley, always drawn to the grotesque, manages to find a strange grandeur to the film’s graphic violence, be it the stripping of flesh from a human head, or a suicidal heir plummeting to his death. He crafts some sick turns into darkly comic barbs, like an early reveal that the lovely husky pup the doctor’s taken into his apartment has been crudely rotisseried for a homemade meal. Rapturous and surreal are scenes like an inky invasion of the swimming pool and a slo-mo party brawl, which play like mind-spinning trips out of A Clockwork Orange or Under The Skin. His visuals, twisted and bizarre, aim to entrap the audience in the cult-like atmosphere of the high-rise itself. And the editing—violent in its cuts, slicing from one place to another to jarring effect—gives a similar sense of unease.
The first forty minutes or so of High-Rise are stylish, unsettling, and grimly witty. But then Wheatley abruptly changes gears, piling on monologues, violence, sex and tedious arguments, mutating his characters from people to crudely expressed ideas. Representing the “lower people” is a spitting and seething Luke Evans as a documentary filmmaker who feels entitled to a better life and a better wife. He’s constantly pushing himself on the wealthier women, including Sienna Miller’s disco-fabulous single mom. Meanwhile, a perpetually pregnant Elisabeth Moss is left to grin, bear it, and care for the kids as her husband plays self-made revolutionary.
There’s an interchangeable array of men with thick 70s facial hair in the upper floors who say hideous things and sneer at Hiddleston and all those literally below him. But the “god” of this place is its architect, played with chilly bravado by Jeremy Irons. Things take a turn during a squash match when he abruptly gets very possessive over one tenant, quipping crassly about her “tight cunt.” Then, just as abruptly he turns maudlin, lamenting that this building was meant as a “crucible for change.”
You might wonder how, when all the poor folk were relegated to the part of the building with the least sunlight and the most maintenance problems. You might also wonder why people would live in a place where “wives are being traded for food,” coming home from the office could get you captured by a furious faction, and dinner consists of doggie food or food made of dog. But High-Rise does not. One weird montage whizzes by and the high-rise transforms into post-apocalyptic roach motel, where no one will leave for no apparent reason.
For the first half, I was jolted, marveling and generally entertained, though frequently disturbed. But Wheatley loses grip of the story’s grounding, unfurling an increasingly sloppy plot that’s characters begin to blur together into a mess of profoundly ugly humanity. Which perhaps is the point. But it makes for a dull experience, especially as Wheatley’s idea of “edgy” debauchery feels juvenile, being limited to orgies and anal sex. (The far superior class-warfare thriller Snowpiercer at least had the good sense to loop in cannibalism.)
More frustrating than Wheatley’s misanthropic message is the treatment of female characters as afterthoughts. The men in this world repeatedly refer to women as property, and the film refuses to refute that dangerous idea. The female characters are easily written off as nags, trophy wives, or teases. In each case, these roles win them nothing but scorn, abuse, neglect or rape. They bear little impact on the plot, until the final act. And by then, these sketches of womanhood are so barely there that their motives are unknowable, their resolution frustratingly ambiguous. While Miller and Moss are mesmerizing nonetheless, the script doesn’t give them much to do but look beautiful and be abused. Weighty speeches about society, power and status, well that’s for the menfolk to deal with.
Following its NY premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, High-Rise hits theaters May 13th.