Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Ben Wheatley
Stars: Dan Renton Skinner, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Jeremy Irons,Keeley Hawes, Luke Evans, Sienna Guillory, Sienna Miller, Tom Hiddleston, Tony Way
Where to even begin with director Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is beyond me. If ever there were a muck of a film that thrived on it’s look and style alone it would seem to be this one. Not even the charisma of insanely charismatic British actors like Tom Hiddleston and Luke Evans can save the hot mess this is, though. From the outset audiences are presented with a dystopic world of chaos and destruction that seems so disconnected from anything resembling familiarity that there is no urgency to care. Instead, this intended metaphor of social hierarchy is an aimless slog through the explanation of a failing system rather than any kind of examination of how social classes are commonly found in societies that are actually developed. What we see in High-Rise is a society that never develops past the embryonic stages. It’s always been something of a rule of thumb that a dominant hierarchy is necessary in order to maintain social order and provide a stable structure, but the folks who have created this luxury tower block seem to all want to live in luxury with no one invested in putting in the dirty work. Naturally, those living on the lower floors are the ones believed to be less worthy of their place in the tower and thus what eventually develops is an all-out dangerous social situation that leads the residents of the high-rise to fragment into violent tribes hellbent on provoking one another into submitting to the other. While the circumstances of this premise would certainly turn into a rather disorderly situation in any film I didn’t expect the film itself to do the same thing.
Set in London in 1975 we are first introduced to Robert Laing (Hiddleston). Laing is a young doctor seemingly seduced by the idea of the lifestyle in this new high-rise complex that is essentially a community cut off from the rest of society. Laing is also seduced by the mysterious creator of the tower, architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Taking up residence on the twenty-fifth floor, Laing comes to discover a world of involved loyalties as he also strikes up a relationship with Royal’s devoted aide Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and her son. Eventually, the levels begin to meld and Laing befriends Richard Wilder (Evans), a documentary filmmaker who lives on one of the first floors with his wife, Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their many children, who is determined to arouse the many injustices inherent in the high-rise.
The rapid decline of the state of the high-rise, how quickly it happens and without any real justification gives it little impact on top of making little sense. Feelings of anger are inevitably evoked from the opposing classes, sure, but why it escalates so fast to this level of pure chaos is inexplicable. The fact that the high-rise is apparently cut off from society is never really explained, much less the reasoning as to why this is the case. And so, for the majority of the film the audience is left to wonder why no authoritative presence ever shows up to provide some kind of order. Even after we realize no help is coming from anything akin to a police force, the question remains as to why Royal never sets down any rules or regulations of his own. After all, this guy who is somewhat affectionately referred to as, “the architect,” would also be the supposed leader of the complex and yet his arc more or less makes less sense than his buildings rapid decline. Even more inconspicuous is why Laing spirals out of control at all. As things begin to fail, Evans’ Wilder states that, “living in a high-rise requires a special kind of behavior.” Hiddleston plays Laing as a neutral party though, never allowing the otherwise tranquil doctor to spiral out of control until it is what everyone else is doing, thus seemingly making it the only option for Laing as well. This isn’t the main problem with Wheatley’s film though, more it is that we never know if it is indeed because of the influence around him that Laing succumbs or if it is actually because the good doctor becomes so embroiled in the class warfare (which translates to who throws a better party) that he feels it necessary to throw away his comfortable bachelor lifestyle and promising career.
High-Rise purports to shed light on a more sinister dimension of our society when contained within this limited space, but by the midway point of the film I didn’t care enough to know the answers to the questions and qualms the film had set-up. Worse, if we already didn’t care about the circumstances of the plot the lack of any characterization to the people we meet is alarming to say the least. Miller may get the worst end of the bargain given it is difficult to even pinpoint the reasoning of her Charlotte’s existence. It’s as if she solely exists to be the obvious choice for Hiddleston’s character to hook up with. Of course, while this is the obvious route for Laing to go he naturally refuses it and wants little to do with Charlotte other than the occasional tryst to get his rocks off while his heart seems set on the less obvious target (Moss’ pregnant Helen, of course). Evans has the most interesting role in the whole movie as he at least gets an arc and something to fight for, but the lack of any driving force in the narrative as well as any clarity in the story as a whole make this a moot point. Instead, the film ends up being little more than an observation of terror and destruction confined to this single location. This concept is clearly intended to enhance the fascination of this hierarchical system and the commentary it provides on our own society, but instead just makes it clear how futile the whole exercise actually is.