High-Rise (Dir. Ben Wheatley) hit cinemas back in March 2016, and was recently released on DVD and digital download. I was going to review this shortly after seeing it on the big screen, but I wasn’t really sure where to start with it, and life kind of got in the way. Now that it is available to buy, I feel that now is the right time to give it a shot.
The film is set in a futuristic/parallel version of 1970s Britain, where several massive high-rise (that term might come up a lot in this post) structures have been built to house hundreds of people, from artists, film makers, and teachers, to leading scientists, architects, and famous actors. The floors are separated in a class system, with upper classes living further up, and the lower classes living closer to the bottom. The building is, at first, presented as a utopia, where every need is catered for, and the residents of the high-rise only ever need to leave to go to work.
After a short while, the facilities on the lower floors begin to fail, causing frustration amongst the tenants, but this is dismissed by upper floors and maintenance workers as ‘teething problems’, and all complaints are met with the response that the issues will eventually sort themselves out. By day, the residents go about their daily routines, but by night, they throw wild parties, each more excessive than the last, mostly attended by those either from their own floor, or no more than two floors directly above or below them.
The stress caused by the failing facilities in the building, and the lack of sleep caused by the non-stop partying, eventually causes a collective nervous breakdown in the high-rise (not unlike my house in my second year of university), and the tension eventually bubbles over into a civil war across the building.
The director of the film, Ben Wheately, has a very good knack for creating a sense of tension and dread, which I can only compare to someone attaching an elastic band to your head and pulling it just to the point where you think they are going to let go, then pulling it further. It’s hard to put your finger on how he accomplishes this, but part of it is to do with the sense of lingering passive aggression and constant one-upmanship between characters, to the point where you are expecting a confrontation, but it’s repeatedly stifled for various reasons.
The main character, Dr Laing (Tom Hiddleston), is the closest thing we have to a viewer surrogate- He is something of a blank slate, and all we know about him is that he is a financially well off physiologist living on one of the middle floors of the building. He explicitly states that he looking for a clean slate and some anonymity, but his motivations, other than this, are quite unclear. Hiddleston nails the character, in the way that he is enigmatic, and slightly disconnected from everything else. He also seems unfazed, but not quite immune to the hysteria that is sweeping across the community.
Things really start to go to shit after a while, with the residents blocking off their floors, setting up traps, and relying on power outages to brutalize their enemies and conduct raids on rival floors under the cover of darkness. As society collapses, the once clean aesthetics of the building begin to follow, and the tenants abandon any sense of personal hygiene, to the point where you can almost smell them (think of a group of twenty to thirty-somethings coming back from Glastonbury, then times that by ten).
The eventual breakdown wouldn’t be as unsettling if it wasn’t for the gradual set up, as you only realise how fucked up things are becoming as some of the main characters succumb to the madness that’s going on around them, with some of them committing increasingly depraved acts. There was a point, about halfway through the film, as we see the brutality in full swing, where an almost tangible wave of discomfort washed over the cinema, as everyone (myself included) collectively cringed from what they were seeing.
It would sound slightly perverse if I said that I enjoyed the film from start to finish, but while certain scenes made me feel oppressed and claustrophobic, I wanted to keep watching, just to see what happened next. The absurdity of the madness occurring in the high-rise is pushed to the point where it is almost comedic at times, which offsets some of the more barbaric and horrific moments just enough so that it remains watchable. One of the things to commend the movie for is the soundtrack, which captures the tone (no pun intended) of the film perfectly; a particular highlight being two separate renditions of ABBAs “SOS”, first seen being played by a string quartet at one of the many parties thrown in the high-rise, then later, there is a haunting reprise (this time a Portishead cover), as we see a montage of looting, disorder, and destruction.
My main problem with the film, was that while the cast play their roles beautifully, some of the characters feel slightly one-dimensional, and when some of them meet their maker, it feels like it doesn’t have as much impact as it should. Maybe this was intentional, or it was a result of making a few composites of several characters from the book, but in the narrative, some tenants simply disappear without much thought given to it.
Overall though, I’d say that this is worth watching, and while I was slightly convinced that I was losing my mind at a few points, and certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a date movie, it is a good film to watch if you are looking for something that is a little different, and impressive from a film making perspective.