Ben Wheatley’s bizarre and boisterous new film, “High-Rise”, is well-named. The director himself has risen speedily since he started making absurdist black comedy-thrillers like “Down Terrace” (2009) for a few thousand pounds apiece, and his fifth film has a far-higher profile and higher budget than any of his previous ones. In terms of quality, though, “High-Rise” falls short.
Adapted from J.G. Ballard’s dystopian 1975 novel, it’s set almost entirely within one brutalist block of flats in an alternate-universe version of 1970s Britain. The most recent arrival is Dr Laing, played by Tom Hiddleston much as he plays Jonathan Pine in BBC One’s hit series, “The Night Manager”, ie, as a rakishly handsome but rather blank observer of the super-rich. Having moved into his bare, concrete flat, he visits the building’s gym, swimming pool and drab supermarket, and he goes to parties thrown by his fellow residents, whose social status is signified by the floor-number of their flats. Laing is on the same storey as an officious dentist (Reese Shearsmith). A few storeys below is a militant, mutton-chopped documentary maker (Luke Evans) and his heavily pregnant, chain-smoking wife (Elisabeth Moss). Above him is a patrician gynaecologist (James Purefoy), a glamorous socialite (Sienna Miller), and so on up to the shag-piled penthouse, which is owned by the building’s godlike, white-suited architect (Jeremy Irons).
The tower block, proclaims the architect, was conceived as “a crucible for change” – but it’s a crucible in which the lift keeps breaking down and the swimming pool isn’t big enough. The residents aren’t happy. Soon – much too soon to be credible, even in the film’s skewed reality – the building becomes a war zone. Parties descend into endless orgies, looters raid the supermarket, and spit-roasted dogs become a staple food. And yet the residents don’t ever consider moving out.
It’s quite fun, I must admit. But the film’s fatal flaw is that as soon as social order breaks down, so does the plot. Wheatley and Amy Jump – his wife and the film’s co-editor and screenwriter – abandon any attempt to continue the narrative; instead, they turn the second half of “High-Rise” into one long hallucinatory montage. It becomes impossible to follow the chronology, or even to determine where in the building the bafflingly inconsistent characters are supposed to be. You have to assume that one day we will see a four- or five-hour director’s cut of “High-Rise” in which the later sequences are as coherent as the earlier ones, but the current cut is like a two-hour trailer. As a compilation of risqué and grisly vignettes, it has some surreal style and raucous energy, but as a story it is impenetrable, and its adolescent efforts to be provocative – mostly involving the violent sexual humiliation of various beautiful women – are sour and repetitive. Rich people dressed up as 18th-century French aristocrats? It would have counted as cutting-edge satire in an episode of “The Comic Strip Presents...” circa 1983.
The 1970s setting makes “High-Rise” feel even more dated. It was bold of Wheatley and Jump to opt for the period in which Ballard wrote his novel, and it allows for some sharp pastiche of Seventies fashion. (It’s also an excuse for Portishead to cover ABBA’s “S.O.S.” on the soundtrack, which is even better.) But it makes the film seem like a relic rather than a warning. It feels pointless and wrong-headed to critique the utopian social-housing schemes of the 1960s and 1970s at a time when social housing is under threat. Today, the flats in “High-Rise” would sell for a million pounds each, and the lower classes wouldn’t be let in unless it were to sleep the floors.