It takes all of a minute for the world of High-Rise to reveal its rotten core. The monolithic building of the title is dystopian chic; a pleasant string arrangement accompanies shots of a blood-soaked Tom Hiddleston spit-roasting a dog on his 25th-floor balcony. Director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump, adapting the novel by J.G. Ballard, spend the next hour showing how this sordid state of affairs came to be — but the journey proves less interesting than the destination.
Three months prior to that canine confection, the eponymous residence is still in its halcyon (read: pre-apocalyptic) days. It's like Snowpiercer without the train: the higher the floor, the wealthier the tenant.
Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston) arrives to this closed, self-sufficient system and seems unbothered by the obvious signs that something is amiss. People ask one another which floor they live on the way others might ask what they do for a living, partially as an ice-breaker at parties but really to mentally size up their neighbors. Eventually it won't matter: First class on the Titanic ended up in the same place as steerage.
The imposing building is surrounded by a vast, ugly parking lot, like Disney World in the '70s. Beyond it lies an even more imposing expanse of nothing — the high-rise is an oasis of excess among a desert of underdevelopment. (Asked to give a friend a ride at one point, Hiddleston politely declines. It's been so long since he actually used his car, and the lot is so gargantuan, that he no longer remembers where he parked.)
It's all vaguely Kafkaesque. Like an empire in decline, these people are to be brought down from within by their own decadence and short-sightedness. All the usual signifiers are there: snooty costume parties, rampant infidelity, an over-the-balcony suicide. The center isn't holding here, and no one seems to mind that they're standing on shaky ground.
Wheatley is a master of unease, but he shows little interest in zeroing in on the key moments that drive the have-nots to overthrow the haves. Instead he treats the high-rise's eventual ruin as a foregone conclusion and assumes the viewer will as well. Tensions simmer for the first hour of the film, then immediately boil over — it's every condo association's worst nightmare. Front and center in this proletariat revolt is the building's architect (Jeremy Irons), whose ivory tower is a top-floor apartment high above the peons below.
Wheatley's 2011 Kill List was a uniquely disturbing experience that, five years later, still stands as the most unnerving horror film in recent memory. Sightseers and A Field in England didn't live up to that high bar, and though High-Rise improves on them in certain regards it also makes Kill List look increasingly anomalous within Wheatley's body of work — not only for its high level of graphic violence but also for the director's control over his brutal material. Wheatley and Jump build this tower of moral failings as high as it will go, but High-Rise still ends up feeling like less than the sum of its parts. Though it's admirable that the filmmakers continue to forge ahead in new narrative directions, hindsight makes it appear as though they found their sweet spot and then intentionally moved away from it.
There are inspired grace notes throughout, but they're increasingly the exception rather than the rule. Too many accept this apocalyptic state of affairs at face value, as though turning an isolated, skyscraping residence into a warzone littered with corpses were the only logical conclusion to their highly illogical lifestyles. And maybe it is — but how could we ever be shocked by any of this if none of them are?
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Opens Friday, Lagoon Cinema