“It’s a film that was cynically put together, by the use of focus groups,” director Ben Wheatley explained dryly, in his introduction for the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of his new film High-Rise. “We got a thousand people from all walks of life, and we asked them what they wanted to see in a film. And we wrote it all down and we put it in this movie. Seems there’s a lot of people who like ABBA, I know I do. There’s somehow lots of people who don’t like dogs — I thought everyone loved dogs, but it turned out, not necessarily. J.G. Ballard, everyone loves J.G. Ballard, which I heartily agree with. Gratuitous dancing and nudity, and lots of fucking. These are all the things we had to put in this film; I wanted to make a rom-com.” It was a clever way to frame what is already one of the year’s most divisive movies, a harsh, nasty, occasionally funny, often brutish look at class warfare — explicitly in Britain, though nowadays this seems like much more than a regional text.
Adapted from J.G. Ballad’s 1975 novel, High-Rise concerns Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a doctor in a smart suit with boxes of serious books who moves into a luxury high-rise, the first building of an entire complex. The “futuristic” (for 1975) buildings are designed to be self-sufficient, offering up leisure activities and living necessities on every floor, but Laing’s barely there a day before he picks up on the disparities between the lower-income families on the bottom floors and the ritzier tenants above them, all the way up to the building’s designer, the mysterious and powerful “Royal” (Jeremy Irons), who lives in the penthouse. This might be a metaphor!
Thankfully, Amy Jump’s screenplay gets on with the central conceit fairly early, and really, there’s nowhere much to go with the clever analogies when you have a party of wealthy tenants dressed like literal French courtesans (let them eat cake and all that) explaining of Royal, “He wants to colonize the sky, and who can blame him when you look at what’s going on at (sneer) street level.” But Royal has a bad feeling, even before things go sideways. “I conceived this building as a crucible for change,” he confesses. “I must’ve missed some vital element.” Did he ever.
Early on, Wheatley — whose filmography runs the gamut from the trippy period piece A Field in England to the pitch-black tourist comedy Sightseers — seizes on a style as clean and slick as the surfaces of the block, and then desecrates them both on roughly the same timeline. The wheels fall off tentatively at first — the lights flicker, then the power goes out, then the water’s off. Parties get ugly, tenants get desperate, lesser natures come out to play, and the next thing you know, there are fires and farm animals in the lobby. Wheatley’s color temperatures veer wilder, his smooth camerawork gets frenetic, compositions get cartoonish, ABBA covers grow more sinister. He casts this story as a snowball of desperation and decadence, rolling down the hill with increasing speed and density.
As you might’ve put together, it’s not exactly a light, frothy sit. High-Rise is a nasty bit of business, with a real cruel streak, and there are spots where it feels less like he’s telling a story than rubbing our noses in it. (There was no shortage of walkouts at its Tribeca premiere.) But it doesn’t pull its punches or make any apologies, either; like Wheatley’s earlier works, it exhibits a stubborn disinterest in half-measures.
“I don’t think films like this get made very much anymore,” Hiddleston noted in the post-screening Q&A. “It’s harder to get them made at least, and here was a chance to try.”
“We felt the pressure of that,” Wheatley agreed, “that this was possibly the last big, crazy book adaptation that was gonna happen for a long time… It’s a shame, because if you took this film back in time, and showed it in 1975, it wouldn’t stand out as being weird. At all. Those were the days!”
High-Rise screens this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s available on demand April 28 and in theaters May 13.