Ben Wheatley Reaches for the Sky in High-Rise
High-Rise - Review
UK, 2016/ Cert 15/ 119 mins
Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Tom Hiddlestone, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy.
Ben Wheatley made his debut in 2009 with the gritty documentary-style realism of Down Terrace, a gangster thriller shot for a mere £20,000 in the director’s hometown of Brighton. With High-Rise- an adaptation of the allegedly “unfilmable” J G Ballard novel- Wheatley has earned the right to considerably expand his budget. The film, featuring an A-list cast, still cost a relatively modest £6 million, but it does demonstrate Wheatley stepping up a league to comfortably prove his talents are not confined to low budget fare. Although High-Rise may have polarised critical opinion surely no one can seriously call into question its sheer audacity? The film, like the Brutalist high-rise apartment of its setting, aims for the firmament. However, it also shows its tenants and, by inference modernity itself, heading for a fall.
High Rise’s producer, Jeremy Thomas, has wanted to bring Ballard’s novel to the screen since its publication. In the late 1970s he managed to get the director Nicholas Roeg on board but the film failed to materialise. Wheatley admits that he was unaware of the Roeg connection but he was acquainted with the fact that Thomas resurrected the idea in the 1990s, this time with Vincenzo Natali (Cypher, Splice) directing from a script by Richard Stanley. In the same way that David Cronenberg switched the setting of his filmed version of Ballard’s Crash (1996) from London to Toronto, Natali’s adaptation of High-Rise was set to relocate the apartment to an island in the Pacific. Again, the film never saw the light of day. But now at last, Thomas has seen his dream of Ballard’s dystopian nightmare transferred to the screen and the result is staggeringly brilliant. High-Rise is such a vertiginously joyous experience that I emerged from the theatre after viewing the film reeling from its bravura to such an extent that I suspected that my popcorn may have been laced with amphetamine.
High-Rise opens with its central character, Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddlestone), eating roasted Alsatian on his apartment balcony with the voice-over informing us that "For all its inconveniencies, Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise." The remainder of the film’s narrative relates the characters’ atavistic degeneration, via one continuous flashback, beginning three months earlier at the time that Laing first moved into the tower block. Laing remains an enigma in the film and Hiddlestone succeeds in bringing all of his character’s contradictions to life. Laing is an innocent who seemingly gets drawn into the events against his better judgement. Taking the moral high ground, he steps in to offer protection when the violence threatens to get out control. Nevertheless, Laing remains a willing participant in the brutality. He is a self-confessed “quick learner” and his breakdown sees him increasingly neglect his work as he gives in to the high-rise’s decadent influence, drinking heavily whilst embarking upon two affairs with Charlotte Melville, lasciviously played by Sienna Miller, and the heavily pregnant Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss).
The apartment block resembles a city in the sky, an architectural concept that offers all the modern amenities that could be found within the urban environment. Residents can enjoy a megastore, gymnasium, swimming pools, spa, restaurant and a school. Unfortunately its high-speed elevators, refuse and electrical systems experience faults and it is the failure of these vital services, mere “breathing problems" according to the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), which provide the catalyst for a wanton descent into licentiousness, violence and murder.
Wild bacchanalian parties continue long into the night with drink and drugs on tap as the residents unleash their latent hedonistic impulses. Couples brazenly have sex in the corridors and at one of the ostentatious parties thrown by Royal which deteriorates into full-blown orgy, one woman shouts, “Now which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the arse.” As the trash begins to pile up in the corridors and entire floors of the building are left without electricity, supplies begin to run short in the supermarket, leading competing floors to form rival gangs to fight for goods and services. With the floors representing a de facto social hierarchy– the higher up the building the higher the status of the residents- this conflict becomes a pseudo class war and social climbing by all means necessary becomes the natural order.
After being informed by Laing that a PET scan has indicated that he has a problem with his brain, Munroe (Augustus Prew), a trainee doctor at the hospital where Laing works, throws himself to his death from the building. Unconcerned by the tragic turn of events, the residents continue on their saturnalian trail of self-destruction. Later, the savage battle for hegemony begins when the filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) drowns the pet dog belonging to the faded actress, Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory), in the swimming pool. When considering the drowning alongside the butchering and eating of the animals in the film, one may feel entitled to ask what have dogs done to offend Wheatley and his script-writing partner Amy Jump that their films relish in punishing the creatures to such a sadistic extent? Who can forget the mistreatment of Banjo, the Jack Russell, stolen from his owners and eventually abandoned in Sightseers?
There is a pervasive and insidious malevolence throughout much of Wheatley’s oeuvre. Talking to Mark Kermode about his second feature, the director says “Watching Kill List (2011), I do think, ‘Fuck, I was mean’. It’s a cruel film…. ‘Jesus it’s so angry’. But then I think High-Rise is too, in the end.”[i] Wheatley certainly has a point. There appears to be a singular trope of callousness throughout his films to date, whether it is the parenticidal bleakness of Down Terrace, the brutal genre-bending Kill List, the aforementioned Sightseers which comes across like it is the result of Sam Peckinpah spending a long weekend in a caravan with Mike Leigh, or the sinister, psychedelic, trippy-horror-freak-out of A Field in England (2013). Thematically High-Rise continues in this vein, exploring the dark and disturbing hinterlands of human psychology. T.S Eliot’s poem, ‘Whispers of Mortality’, describes the dramatist John Webster’s theatre as revealing “the skull beneath the skin” and there is certainly a touch of Jacobean tragedy in Wheatley’s cinema. In fact, High-Rise indirectly mirrors Eliot’s famous phrase when Laing performs an educational autopsy, slicing open a forehead and violently ripping back the flesh to show the skull and face to his students. One of the factors which make Wheatley’s films so memorable is that they contain many such striking images with narratives that viscerally peel away the repressed subconscious. But, despite the juxtaposition of viscosity and comedy, the recurring violence in his movies is rarely played for laughs. Although High-Rise’s perceptive satire upon modernity and ubiquitous nature of modern capitalism is riotously funny, there is a constant shift in tone between its dark humour and its ferocious, brutish violence. Although the film offers no rationale nor neat resolution to explain the characters’ regression towards anarchy, the scenes of rape and murder in High-Rise may be hard to stomach but they are never exploitative.
The dystopian element of both novel and film could be argued in a variety of ways. The isolation of the tenants and the encroachment of an increasingly virulent capitalism lead to an intensification of class-division and rampant individualism, impelling the characters to reject the accepted ethical code in favour of a sexual, violent, free-for-all which ultimately confirms the Thatcherite aphorism that “there is no such thing as society.” Similarly, references to Social Darwinism are constantly evoked. However, Ballard and Wheatley eschew didacticism in favour of creating a sense of alienation and apart from one reference to Margaret Thatcher at the film’s climax, the issue of causality is merely hinted at within the narrative.
The Brutalist architecture of the skyscraper itself could also be considered as contributing to the de-humanising effect. Ballard’s work has been remarkably prescient in relation to modern technological and industrial advances and most of his fiction deals with modernity rather than the usual spaceship and aliens stuff often associated with science fiction. Ballard was particularly interested in the interaction between technology, the environment and individual psychology and High-Rise highlights his fascination with modern architecture and how design aesthetics can influence human behaviour. As one character announces in Ballard’s short story ‘Low Flying Aircraft’: “The ultimate dystopia is in the inside of one’s own head.”
One of the major themes of the novel successfully conveyed by the film is the fact that the high-rise apartment becomes a character in itself. The tenement block becomes a living, breathing creature, a brooding leviathan which looms over the viewer’s imagination and exerts its malevolent influence over those who dwell inside. Similarly, the interior of the apartment block are imaginatively and stylishly presented. The retro apartments are minimally furnished, chic and spacious and in its representation of the supermarket, the film shuns realism for a 1970s hyper-reality that is resonant with the style of Kubrick. In fact the initial shots of the hotel corridors are reminiscent of The Overlook hotel in The Shining, another film where the setting takes on a monstrous character of its own to manipulate Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance.
Meticulous attention to detail has been paid on High-Rise and credit must go to the cinematographer Laurie Rose and the Arts Department led by Mark Tildesley (Production Design), Frank Walsh, Nigel Pollock (Art Direction) Paki Smith (Set Decoration) and Odile Dicks-Mireaux (Costume Design). The film is sumptuous to look at with images that linger long in the memory and will undoubtedly benefit from multiple viewings as there is too much to visually take in at one time. Munroe’s slow-motion suicidal leap from the 39th floor is particularly impressive as are the shots from inside the elevators where multiple mirrors achieve a kaleidoscopic effect which is echoed when Toby Melville (Louis Suc) views the mayhem of the apartment block through his toy kaleidoscope. By concentrating more on Toby’s character, the film departs slightly from the novel, focusing upon the children residing in the high-rise and becoming a reversal of The Lord of the Flies with the adults reverting to barbarism and Toby, a representative of childhood innocence, observing their feral disintegration. When asked by Laing what he sees through his kaleidoscope, Toby replies, “The future.” This is later emphasised when we see the boy listening to his self-made radio broadcasting a speech by Margaret Thatcher eulogising upon the virtues of capitalism.
In addition to focusing on the children, the film also places emphasis on the female residents which rescues it from any accusations of misogyny. Despite being assaulted, raped and confined into servitude, the denouement suggests that any escape from the anarchy of the high-rise will ultimately be the responsibility of the women. Although the film does not have a happy ending, its ambiguity does not entirely reject the possibility of redemption.
One of the ways in which Jump’s script has remained loyal to its source material is in choosing to place the action in the mid-1970s, the period in which the book was published. Some critics have raised their eyebrows at this, but the decision made by Wheatley and Jump is vindicated on a number of levels. Firstly, by setting the film just before the election of the Conservatives in 1979 when the Thatcherite revolution began to dismantle the postwar consensus, the social and political elements are foregrounded into the film. Secondly, although Ballard has been described as a science fiction author, much of his writing resists such simple generic classification. “I was interested in the real future that I could see approaching, and less in the invented future that science fiction preferred”[ii] , Ballard once said, claiming his stories were set in the “visionary present.”[iii] This is discernible in the filmed adaptation of High-Rise with its 1970s timescale acting as a comment upon the present social climate, rather than a prophecy of a distant future. Both film and book have an immediacy which makes their brutality even more disturbing.
One of the most prescient features in Ballard’s High-Rise is its anticipation of the gentrification of London which has intensified into a form of social cleansing of areas of the capital. We see this in the social make-up of the residents which has totally excluded the working class, consisting purely of various stratifications of the middle class, all competing to climb the vertical hierarchical order. On the lower floors dwell the less affluent sections of the middle class, typified by Wilder, a filmmaker prone to outbursts of sudden, senseless violence, whose degeneration is emphasised when his wife serves him a can of dog food for his dinner. Wilder’s initial revolt against the services provided for the lower floors turns increasingly brutal as he first decides to film the events in the high-rise for one of his documentaries before abandoning the project to climb the building in an attempt to murder the architect.
Irons is perfectly cast as the sleazy Royal, his performance a comical blend of amorality and eccentricity. The architectural Ubermensch resides on the 40th floor, the zenith of his own creation and is described in the film as being “intent on colonising the sky.” Initially his Nietzschean Will to Power is unquestioned by his henchmen who are happy to use strong-arm tactics to cement his authority. But as events in the high-rise begin to spiral out of control, he becomes, in his own words, “The architect of my own accident”, and his acolytes become increasingly unruly and disobedient. Royal finally relinquishes his power, claiming that his architectural creation has become a “crucible for change” in which all social, political and moral authority is challenged by primal individualism.
High-Rise can be read as part social satire, and part philosophical tussle between Apollonian Reason and Dionysian anti-rationalism where humanity’s repressed desires come to the fore and the id, gloriously unleashed, is allowed to run riot. At one point towards the end of the film, Royal is served a meal consisting of some unspecified meat. Is it dog? Or horse? Or even worse? Perhaps it is human? We never find out. But rarely in the cinema has evolutionary regression appeared as carnally sexy as the moment when, in close-up, Sienna Miller scoops the meat into her hands to chomp it down, provocatively revealing her teeth in a Darwinian snarl of contempt. The film could also be regarded as dramatising the Fall of Man with the residents rejecting civilisation for anarchy and order for chaos. There are repeated shots of characters and objects hanging or falling from the building, from Munroe’s suicide to slow-motion poetic imagery of glasses, bottles and other detritus recklessly thrown from the balconies. This metaphor is subtly extended by the inclusion of the song ‘Industrial Estate’ by the Mancunian post-punk outfit The Fall, featured just before the closing credits.
The music for the film was composed by ex- Pop Will Eat Itself front man and Grammy and Golden Globe nominee Clint Mansell who ingeniously keeps the 1970s theme alive by including a string arrangement of Abba’s ‘S.O.S.’ which becomes part of the diegesis, when performed at one of Royal’s lavish parties. ‘S.O.S.’ was a top ten hit for the Swedish pop group in the same year that Ballard’s High-Rise was published and is reprised later in the film with Portishead having recorded a version especially for Wheatley, subsequently declaring that it can only be heard in the movie as it will not be released in any other format. Their version of the song - the first recording the band have made for six years- complements the action perfectly, its brooding synths and Beth Gibbins’ vocal suggestive of mental disintegration, reflecting the psychological and social breakdown we are witnessing upon the screen.
As High-Rise races frantically towards its brutal climax and events become increasingly chaotic, the film incredibly manages to retain its composure. It is owing to the intelligence of the filmmakers, script and the fine performances that help High-Rise keep a tight rein over its action never becoming too over-the-top to defy common sense. Despite its insanity, there is a perverted and wholly satisfying logic to the depravity depicted.
Expect more mayhem in Wheatley’s next film- his first to be set in the US- a gangland shootout starring Cillian Murphy and Brie Larson. Already in the can, Free Fire, is released later this year. Meanwhile, High-Rise’s stylish exuberance confirms Wheatley as the most exciting filmmaker in the country at the moment.
Now, how would you like your Alsatian?