Director: Ben Wheatley
By Roderick Heath
Ben Wheatley debuted as a director with 2009’s Down Terrace and leapt to the forefront of British filmmaking talents with his second work, the gruesome, tantalisingly semi-abstract horror film Kill List (2011). Since then Wheatley, working in close collaboration with wife Amy Jump, who cowrites and edits his films, made the blackly humorous Sightseers (2013) and the psychedelic period film A Field in England (2014). Part of the potency the duo’s collaborations have mustered wells from the blend of Wheatley’s filmmaking savvy, achieving beguiling gloss and texture with stringent budgets and strong but near-unknown casts, and creative eagerness to smack apposite ideas and styles together. Wheatley and Jump marry the disorientating and enigmatic effects of arthouse cinema to down-and-dirty genre aesthetics, conjure farce and savagery as entwined serpents, and harbour an evident yearning to reinvigorate touchstones from diverse heydays of British cinema. Sightseers, for instance, managed to pitch itself somewhere between Ealing comedy and the eerie stylings of ’60s and ’70s folk-horror films, whilst A Field in England, though never quite coalescing as successfully as its two predecessors, also represented a leap in ambition as Wheatley and Jump explored the familiar theme of the shock of the new, but in the context of the past. High-Rise sees the filmmaking duo moving into new territory in adapting a highly regarded novel penned by J.G. Ballard in 1975 and working with a much more prestigious cast and budget. Still, the material demands that the duo’s edgy, fearless streak be left undiluted.
Ballard, a writer who, like Kurt Vonnegut, transcended his niche in popularity as a science fiction writer to become regarded as one of the most impishly acerbic imaginations of his time, spent part of his youth in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. He later transmuted that desperate experience into his famous novel Empire of the Sun, filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Ballard’s adult viewpoint on the world, one that emerged with increasing ferocity, perversity, and cyanide wit in his writing, was understandably inflected by the grim lessons of his war experience, the spectacle of human civilisation suddenly ceasing to work in the coherent, systematic, antiseptic manner that defines modernity. Ballard’s scifi writing took on an increasing tint of brute parable as he offered mordant dissection of social systems and the underlying assumptions of human behaviour that sustain them. High-Rise levelled Ballard’s cold wit and unsparing sensibility at one of modernism’s temples, the high-rise apartment building, and the attendant commercialism of the boutique lifestyle mythos. The story, although nominally realistic and contemporary to when Ballard wrote it, edges quickly into a Swiftian portrait of what happens as systems break down and primeval behavioural patterns begin to assert themselves.
A few years ago I happened to catch on TV a British semi-documentary film from 1946, The Way We Live, detailed the rebuilding of Plymouth, rejoicing in the promise of apartment blocks as the way of the future for affordable housing. It was both a fascinating and perturbing experience to watch from a half-century’s distance, considering that life in such blocks would eventually become synonymous with slums and social dysfunction in many British towns (and far beyond), as large numbers of poor people were crammed into drab, self-cordoning zones — although now high-rise solutions to space and environment problems in cities are again becoming an trendy notion. Ballard’s target was larger than just architectural cul-de-sacs and the social engineering they’re supposed to enable, though, as his high-rise structure becomes a metaphor for the entire apparatus of human civilisation, with a grand architect named Royal and the floors of the building literalising social caste in terms of floors. Wheatley and Jump, in adapting the novel, made the choice to keep the story set in the 1970s, an idea with perhaps inevitable appeal for the duo with their fetish for retro tropes and styles, but one which also risks stripping the tale of its immediacy and still-pungent relevance, especially considering that with Kill List, Wheatley had revealed a gift for digging into a raw nerve of anxiety and portrayed the blindsiding quality of the late ’00s economic tsunami and the bitter aftertaste of the decade’s geopolitical adventuring better than most any other filmmaker.
High-Rise also keeps intact the flashback structure of Ballard’s novel, which commences with the instantly galvanising image of focal character Robert Laing eating a dog, and works backwards to explain how he came to this moment. Tom Hiddleston takes on the part of Laing, glimpsed at the outset exploring the mysteriously ruined, fetid, broken-down environs of his home, where strange men and dead bodies sit around apparently unnoticed, and the aforementioned act of cooking and eating a wandering dog is scarcely worth a blink. A title card announces a jump back three months to the days when Laing first moved into his new apartment building, the first completed tower in a five block project designed by genius architect and entrepreneur Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Royal’s declared hope for the building is to create a civic crucible that would break down class and other social barriers and create a self-sufficient community unto itself, complete with supermarket and swimming pool, and he’s attracted a great swathe of tenants through the fashionable swank and visionary allure of his construction.
As he settles into life in building, Laing learns that the opposite situation to the one Royal hoped for is rapidly evolving, with a rigid hierarchy built on floor levels. Lower floors are filled with middle-class wannabes whilst toffs and celebrities congregate in the higher. Laing, a pathologist at a teaching hospital, hovers somewhere in between, but he captures the interest of many of his new neighbours, including the much-chased single mother and socialite a floor above, Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and Royal himself, with his tenancy application, which inadvertently portrayed him as a Byronic intellectual. Laing seems to partly fit the bill as a loner, tightly-wrapped, both physically and psychologically. He’s recently been left quietly bereft, but also subtly armoured, by the death of his sister.
Laing draws Charlotte’s further interest when she catches sight of him sunbaking naked on his apartment terrace. She invites him for a session of fine dining and rutting in her apartment, which is interrupted by her young, bespectacled, hyperintelligent son Toby (Louis Suc). Charlotte’s also being pursued by another resident, Wilder (Luke Evans), a virile, fervent, working-class man who’s climbed a few social rungs through his work as a TV filmmaker. He lives on a lower floor with his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their kids. Laing encounters other neighbours around the building, a gallery of variously fussy, pushy, eccentric types, including wealthy, famous, but desperately lonely and fraying actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory); and supermarket checkout chick Fay (Stacy Martin), who starts teaching herself French from a phrasebook Laing buys but leaves behind.
Laing is invited to meet Royal by Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), his gatekeeper, and is bewildered by the rooftop garden, complete with thatched cottage, that crowns the building, Royal’s concession to his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), progeny of a great country house and the patrician mindset thereof. Royal, who limps from an injury he sustained during the building’s construction, needs exercise to keep limber: he asks Laing to be his squash partner and also offhandedly invites him to a party his wife is giving. When he arrives at the party, Laing is embarrassed to find everyone else is in fancy dress (as pre-Revolution French aristocrats, complete with chamber orchestra scratching out a version of ABBA’s “SOS”) whilst he’s in a black suit, and worse, he’s outed as a man who doesn’t understand the vicissitudes of the sphere he has entered. Cosgrove, the hard fist attached to this body politic, tosses him out after a brief window of courtesy, and Laing is forced to spend the night in the elevator when it breaks down. Royal is apologetic over both the humiliation and the breakdown, but he infuriates Laing with unchivalrous remarks about Charlotte.
The elevator breakdown proves, moreover, to be an early sign of the faults Royal dismisses as teething problems, but which soon turn out to be endemic. As the infrastructure of the building breaks down so does the nerve, tolerance, and finally the humanity of its populace. “On the whole, life in the high-rise was good,” the narrator’s voiceover (also Hiddleston) proclaims late in the film, directly quoting Ballard’s text: “There had been no obvious point when it had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.” Part of the essence of High-Rise’s thesis is precisely the idea that perhaps there is no great divide between the petty evils (and ecstasies) of human society and the potential for total descent into what some would call anarchy; indeed, another of High-Rise’s themes is that anarchy is another kind of order. High-Rise eventually moves into overt parable, even surreal territory, reminiscent of the music room no one can leave in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), as life in Royal’s building begins to decay and everyone, instead of reaching beyond it, becomes determined to win their various battles within it, sensing, as the very end signals, that they might at least gain the advantage of being used to it before everyone else has to do the same. It’s also a variation on an eternal theme of postwar British artists, particularly satirists and comedians: the thorny and often insufferable business of living with other people, an inevitable psychological by-product of life on a small island where politeness is not just a pleasantry, but an actual survival skill.
Great swathes of modern science fiction writing have never really had their day on screen, and the best writers of Ballard’s era, including Michael Moorcock, Harry Harrison, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison, conjured gritty, dingy, sexy, acerbic tales that threw off the adamantine postures of earlier genre writing and embraced a cynical and dissident attitude even before the cyberpunk age arrived. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) was one of the few authentic filmings of that style in its own era; Robert Fuest’s take on Moorcock’s The Final Programme (1974) was another. Wheatley’s work here recalls Fuest’s film particularly, evoking devolution as haute couture phenomenon. Wheatley’s decision to make High-Rise in period proves quickly to have been a master stroke, in part because it accords with the material’s wilful rejection of restraint in its metaphors, turning Ballard’s tale into a kind of disco allegory slightly out of time, like Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968). The first half, however, plays mostly like a ’70s sex farce with the underlying note of absurdist dread only registering as the faintest buzz, as Laing negotiates life in the tower and contemplates the uncommon (that is, utterly common) mores of his fellow inhabitants, from Charlotte’s nonchalant approach to sexuality (after they’ve been interrupted shagging by Toby, Charlotte lights a cigarette; Laing asks confusedly, “I thought we were doing this,” to her reply, “We’ve done it.”) to Helen’s broody, frustrated angst, expiated in dreams of moving to a higher floor and watching TV dramas set in the romantic past, and Wilder’s tiger-in-a-cage unease in his environment. Meanwhile the upper classes and their lackeys barely bother concealing their vicious defensiveness, setting the stage for a partial inversion of the world H.G. Wells envisioned in his The Time Machine where the workers would evolve into cannibalistic Morlocks and the bourgeois into effete Eloi: in this vision, the upper classes remain so precisely because of their cold-blooded determination to hold onto privileges, a lack of sentimentality that could be called monstrous or some kind of evolutionary advantage.
Laing, after his ejection from Ann Royal’s party, takes out his anger with quiet precision on one of her other guests and a fellow tenant, the foppish Munrow (Augustus Prew), who’s also one of his pupils at the hospital. Munrow faints during Laing’s instructive dissection of a human head, and though his medical scans come back showing he’s fine, Laing plays a blackhearted practical joke on him by suggesting the scans suggest he might be ill. Shortly after, Munrow throws himself off a balcony to his death. Laing’s mean joke gone wrong proves to be a psychic declaration of war that soon starts to consume the building, where minor faults and breakdowns evolve into systemic failure of power and supply.
Wilder starts a more overt insurrection with a catalyst moment that begins as literal child’s play: Wilder, edgy and itching for conflict during a birthday party for one of his kids, leads the child guests in a raiding party on the swimming pool, which has been cordoned off and claimed for a toff’s wine party. After one of the higher-floor tenants, a newsreader who works for the same TV station, promises to get him blackballed, Wilder releases his anger by purposely drowning Jane’s dog. The pool crashing coincides with a power outage, with the lower-floor residents respond to with a sprawling impromptu party, during which Wilder snorts cocaine and, confronted by Cosgrove, beats the enforcer to a pulp. Wilder certainly has all the potency and force required to lead the lower-floor faction, as social sniping becomes active warfare, but does he have the sense of a cause and the wisdom? His first instinct is stick to his job, endeavouring to make a documentary on life in the tower block even as everything goes to hell, whilst Laing’s instinct is to retreat into his intense, self-composed bubble and wait out the various storms breaking upon his door. But this proves impossible as the block spirals into chaos during the continued blackout, and supplies start to run low. A cabal of upper-floor types led by Pangbourne (James Purefoy), with Ann Royal as patron, begin to create plans to take on the lower floors and throw an even better party, a plan that shades into full-on raiding and pillaging as looting breaks out in the supermarket and it becomes clear survival and prosperity in the building is starting to become a matter of raw force and dominance.
High-Rise, in spite of its nominal period setting, has the genes of dystopian science fiction, portraying a microcosmic society in breakdown and connecting that breakdown to the processes of the human mind itself. Laing compares Royal’s building plans to a human hand—the multiple towers are shaped like the curling fingers closing around the great central car park that, in spite of being wide open, is actually labyrinthine in its confusion—a brain and nervous system, and then finally, a heart. The idea of place becoming a mimetic map of psychological function is an old one in scifi, suggested in Metropolis (1926), and here employed with a hint that it’s an illustration of a war between functional utilitarianism, implied by the resemblance to the hand, the often illogical and mysterious twists of the mind that controls it, and the force of the heart that keeps beating through all. Laing’s name suggests a reference to the influential Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who helped develop a theory that the madness that follows attacks of schizophrenia is the cathartic result of the brain receiving contradictory messages—a notion that describes High-Rise’s narrative and Wheatley’s treatment of it as a whole with great accuracy. As the situation in the tower block worsens, Wheatley’s tone straddles the zones of horror movie consummation and screwball comedy, seeing both the repulsive and hilarious aspects of people acting on their worst impulses as their civilisation declines from consumerist paradise to galvanised class structure to tribal commune.
Futuristic tales of dystopian societies and struggles against coercion have been infiltrating popular cinema of late, with films like The Hunger Games series, Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer (2013), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and the structural conceit of Snowpiercer’s social metaphor suggests the immediate influence of Ballard’s tale. Wheatley’s take on that tale feels, however accidentally, like a riposte to the supposedly dark, but actually simplistic, reassuring heroic fantasies in those films. High-Rise posits Wilder as a possible hero figure, a would-be revolutionary who wears both his class resentment and his masculine force on his sleeve, but he’s led astray in the course of the film by the very violent impulses he can’t control and by sexual egotism that finally manifests in the ugliest way when he learns that Charlotte, who has rejected him, has been Royal’s mistress and that Toby is the architect’s son: Wilder’s response is to break into Charlotte’s flat, rape and beat her bloody, and then make her feed him in a gruesome caricature of normality, with the punch line that Charlotte feeds him dog food, one of the few foodstuffs left in the building. Wilder chows down with straightforward acceptance of a new reality, apparent in some of the building’s other inhabitants. Meanwhile, Helen finds her own succour getting rogered by Lain over the unused stovetop in his apartment, a space he tries in vain to decorate and inhabit; his belongings remain unpacked, with smears of neutral blue-grey paint the same hue as the colour of the sky outside on his walls in his attempt to fashion himself a free-floating life. It’s not until he actually has to fight for ownership of a can of paint in the supermarket-turned-war-zone that he actually proves he wants anything. Wilder eventually half-compliments, half-condemns Laing for his self-possession, the kind of apparently bland, quiet rigour that can actually weather the storm that’s breaking about their ears.
Moving slightly askew from Ballard’s obsessive theme of the distorting quality of technology and its pernicious penetration of the way humans relate to it and each other, Wheatley and Jump’s interest is more compelled by social ritual — its apparent arbitrariness, the very real forces it sometimes conceals and otherwise channels — and also by the rules of power as evinced in the seeming neutral zone of modern life. Sightseers portrayed its mousy social outcasts finding self-realisation in murder, whilst Kill List depicted a returned Iraq War veteran who engaged in killing for hire to support his lifestyle, only to find the bill arriving in the cruellest fashion possible. A Field in England depicted the temptations of control and submission with suggestive political ramifications: some people certainly do want to lord it over others, but is their ability to do so sometimes facilitated by the desire of others to let them, as a release from certain pressures and anxieties of existence? Wilder’s forced ritual of making Charlotte pose as dutiful wife echoes the scene in A Field in England where the necromancer took his enemy prisoner, tortured him, and then forced him to wear a sickly smile whilst leading him like a dog on a leash. Wilder eventually harbours an ambition to climb to the higher levels and confront the god-king Royal, to tear him down or displace him, only to fail to recognise Royal when the two men meet in the supermarket after the architect descends to the lower levels in his attempts to fathom the failure of his creation and the people in it. Royal himself tries to count himself out of the chaos, but is drawn however reluctantly into the upper-floor cabal out of sheer parochial loyalty, as his anointed class’s parties devolve into raw, explosive orgies fuelled with captured riches. Royal finds himself nominated as tribal chieftain, for all his flummoxed cynicism.
Around the travails of the main characters, Wheatley offers a sprawling landscape of strangeness, offering perversely ebullient filmmaking as he charts the decline of the building from chintzy classiness to stygian pit, alternating effects of dreamy fantasia and cokey Scorsesean montages, matched to Kubrick’s ironic classical music cues, whilst visions of Sadean revelry flit by. Ann Royal is forced to run on a supermarket conveyor like a treadmill when she’s caught by a gang of vengeful spivs led by Fay; Jane rides amidst the snobs’ orgy on horseback as a porn-queen take on Lady Godiva before dismounting and asking “which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the arse?” A team of upper-floor raiders led by Pangbourne adopt tracksuits as a uniform and march into the supermarket happy to crack skulls. Wheatley and Jump’s propulsive editing style maintains the free-flowing, anecdotal quality of Ballard’s writing, vignettes of a descent into hell—or heaven, as so many seem ebullient and released in their surrender to completely carnal realities, including Royal and his wife, who shift from mutual contempt to strange loving using Jane as sexual surrogate, the two women holding hands plaintively whilst Royal works away. As the dissolution of the building reaches it last stages, its atomises into camps—women gathered in communal suckling circles, orgiastic sprawls that would make Sardanapulus blush, the swimming pool turned at first into a miniature Ganges where people wash clothes and then a concrete Styx littered with corpses.
Laing eventually finds himself threatened with top-floor defenestration when he refuses the request of Cosgrove, Pangbourne, and others in the upper echelon to lobotomise Wilder; he is saved only by Royal’s intervention. Wilder himself, given a gun by the Royals’ much-abused housekeeper and after Helen has been snatched as a hostage and put to work as a servant, climbs up through the building’s ventilator system, determined to confront Royal, only to stir the wrath of the women who form a kind of gestalt, a band of neo-Bacchantes who respond with lethal group wrath when their priest-king is threatened. Perhaps the most subversive idea in High-Rise is not that there’s a monster lurking under everyone’s skin, but that people are the same in just about any situation, just to greater or lesser degrees, and that after a time, perhaps it’s less our individuality than our shared reflexes that allow us to survive and create worlds together. Wheatley and Jump finally locate weird visions of happiness in disintegration amidst the horror and find a moment to note humanity even in the worst and the creation of new binaries and social zones, climaxing in beguiling moments, like Pangbourne coaching Helen through her labour pains and the final survey of Laing, calm and fulfilled with a harem of wives and a shank of dog leg on his spit.
If there’s a major flaw to High-Rise, it’s that it paints, but doesn’t entirely analyse the social processes Ballard’s satire was evoking. It backs off from some of the novel’s blackest resolutions, preferring to illustrate instead in a continuum of free-form absurdism. I have the feeling a lot of material finished up in the cutting room floor. But the blackout, sketch-like structure is to a certain extent the strength of High-Rise, kicking off the strictures of narrative nicety and, as the narration says of the building populace by the end, surrendering “to a logic more powerful than reason.” Here is the suggestion its characters reach a logical psychic end point akin to survivors of Leningrad’s siege or the bombing of Dresden, continuing with the business of keeping on. Only the very end brings in a genuinely false note, as a speech by Margaret Thatcher about capitalism is heard wafting on the airwaves: this moment serves less to make a solid connection between the late ’70s rejection of grubby authenticity for neoliberal chic and the sharp edge of social Darwinism than confirming just how much their impotence before the Iron Lady and her creed still haunts the British intelligentsia. High-Rise is certainly strong meat, perhaps too strong for many, in spite of its playful flourishes. But for the most part Wheatley and Jump have made their own work, the kind cinema too rarely offers these days—audacious, dynamic, and superbly crafted.