Ben Wheatley’s latest film fails to reach new heights
Flamboyant carnage evolves out of visually oppressive power hierarchies in Ben Wheatley’s High Rise, a dystopian film equally sustained and flawed by its style. The film is provocative and spontaneously violent. The characters are lonely and cold. Its casual attitude toward horrific acts can cause feelings of anxiety and unease which may persist for hours after viewing concludes.
Wheatley adapts the novel by J.G. Ballard to the screen with clear inspiration from other sci-fi films about hopeless survival and classist corruption, like Brazil and Zardoz. It is colourful to the point of sickening, an apartment block that becomes more outlandish and cruel the higher up you go.
The antagonist at the center of the story is Dr. Laing, played by a calculatedly handsome Tom Hiddleston. The opening scene depicts him barricaded inside his post-apocalypse looking apartment and deciding to eat his former neighbors dog. Time then turns back three months, and the story of the demise is told from the moment he moves into the building. Wheatley removes any element of surprise, and forces the viewer to bear witness to the chaos rather than make sense of it.
Anthony and Ann Royal (Jeremy Irons and Keeley Hawes) live in the penthouse apartment, which includes its own fairy tale-like garden, complete with white steed. Mr. Royal is the architect of the building, and downplays the initial discontent as “teething problems.” When the unequal distribution of resources becomes overwhelming, he laments that his project was so misunderstood. Like God, he wanted to create a peaceful world but the humans soiled it with evil. What starts as a fight over electricity and water, turns into a war over wine and canapés.
Wheatley succeeds in turning big ideas into optical illusions, a building full of surprises that acts as a metaphor for societal unrest. Despite being set in a simultaneously 1950’s/futuristic world, the echoes of contemporary life are deeply palpable. The rich care only about continuing their ongoing party, the poor about having enough resources to survive. Ann Royal lights her 200th cigarette with the statement, “Like all poor people, they’re constantly obsessed with money.”
The violence is chillingly familiar. For the women, the threats of rape are on every corner. Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) is lambasted by the rich for raping those he did not have permission to rape. His wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) spends the entirety of the film with a baby bump the size of a beach ball – she’s been “overdue” for 3 months. The sight of her wobbling around, with a cigarette and glass of Riesling always at hand, puts the viability of the fetus into constant question. The role was perfect for Moss, a rich departure from Mad Men that allowed her to create a heartbreaking mix of innocence and lust.
Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) is the only female who shamelessly takes charge of her sexuality, but once all order is lost she is also abused and humiliated. The idea that after chaos ensues men will thrash and violate women is an obnoxiously predictable plot point. The only hope lies in Charlotte’s son Toby, but even he finds more solace in Margaret Thatcher than his mother.
The film drew on styles taken from a wide variety of times and places, including Victorian, French Revolutionist, American 1960s, disco flashy 1980s, and an imagining of a post-civilization future. The wide palette ensured that there is always a style for Wheatley to attach to, but it also meant a watered down version of style in general. Images, like close ups of exhaling cigarette smoke, are overused so often they lose all meaning and became redundant. Although it could be argued that the entire film is intended to be simultaneously overflowing and devoid of meaning.
As a physiologist, Dr Laing is conducting experiments on the brains of the mentally ill. At the office one day he slices open the severed head of a schizophrenic former patient. He then demonstrates with his thumbs how he can “peel the face away, like a mask.” It is nauseatingly lifelike, and one of his students faints. The detached manner in which he deals with the body is similar to how Wheatley deals with all the characters in the high rise. It is a building full of humans, but no people. All style, but no substance.