Ben Wheatley is a cinematic genius. That’s the only explanation for the adrenaline shooting through your veins while watching his films, that feeling you get when you know you’ve just seen something special. The high that comes from experiencing one of his works is indisputable. It charges back into you each time you reflect on one of his films and every time you mentally organize the puzzle pieces the filmmaker has set forth. Wheatley’s films are immensely rewarding, because the director doesn’t hold your hand, doesn’t tie everything together, and certainly doesn’t connect all the dots. You’re on your own with that, and that’s one of the many reasons why High-Rise, Wheatley’s adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel, is so damn great.
Set in an unspecified time and place – though it certainly looks like England in the 1970s, the setting for Ballard’s novel of the same name – the story focuses on Dr. Robert Laing (played by Tom Hiddleston), a physiologist who has just moved into his high-rise apartment. Laing gets situated on the 25th floor of the massive, monolithic apartment structure that contains every amenity a family, let alone a single man, might need to survive. The building contains a swimming pool for leisure activities, a gym for those weekly squash matches, and even a supermarket complete with generic-brand products. From a distance, it seems like the perfect habitat for those who can afford it, and therein lies the rub.
It isn’t long before Laing realizes the animosities and jealousies among the residents of the apartment building, particularly between the haves and the have-nots. The higher levels, where the wealthy reside, literally and figuratively look down on the lower levels, the middle- and lower-income floors. What begins as a common clash between social standings brews into a complete caste system, the higher ups taking what they want from the lower downs and never satisfied with any of it. The tension is heightened by frequent power outages, problems with the garbage shoot overflowing, a food shortage in the supermarket, and that the police are never called in, even after a resident’s suicide. Forced social order dissolves into chaos and debauchery. The different floors group themselves into violent tribes. Within the self-contained walls of the high-rise apartment building a savage, dystopian society brews, and Laing is soon swept up in the madness.
The adaptation of Ballard’s novel comes courtesy of Wheatley’s long-time, writing partner and wife, Amy Jump. Since Kill List, Wheatley and Jump have collaborated on all his feature projects, and there’s a certain comfort that comes from knowing a tried-and-true team is at it again. It gives a long-time Wheatley fan great pleasure in saying High-Rise doesn’t just meet the expectations of its filmmaking team, it towers over them. Take that pun if you want it.
For decades producer Jeremy Thomas has wanted to bring an adaptation of Ballard’s novel to the screen, as he’s done so with the Steven Spielberg-directed Empire of the Sun and David Cronenberg’s adaptation ofCrash, both Ballard adaptations. Thomas’ desire to create a cinematic universe based on “High Rise” hasn’t faltered, not through the ’70s when lack of finances halted a Nicolas Roeg-directed adaptation and not when Vincenzo Natali came and went as director of a screenplay written by Richard Stanley. “High Rise” has been batted around filmmaking talent to the point many considered it “unfilmable.” If Kubrick or Coppola taught us anything, it’s that nothing is “unfilmable.”
Just ask Ben Wheatley. He has succeeded where so many have failed, and he and his team now bring to the world High-Rise. It not only does justice to Jeremy Thomas’ 30-year crusade to get the damn thing even made, it embodies the cynical, selfish, dry, humorous, foreboding, and reflective novel on which it’s based. Wheatley and Jump understand the tone for which Ballard was aiming. The natural, historical knowledge that proves just how prescient Ballard was about the future dangers of capitalism is never ignored here. What the film – and novel – says about social classes and capitalism should get the attention of about 99% of you. The other 1% of you may just chalk it up as a screwball comedy.
Neither is the flow of Ballard’s work ignored. High-Rise, like the novel, moves at a dream-like pace, rolling through different places, times, and events that all build towards the coming anarchy. The camera moves through scenes putting the viewer in total voyeur mode, the gorgeous sets and pristine clothes popping even better due to the magnificent work by cinematographer Laurie Rose, another long-time Wheatley collaborator.
The edits come at unsettling times, the cuts sometimes at inopportune times. Wheatley and Jump perform the editing duties on all their works, as well, and the vision they share for the final product seems untainted by a studio that only cares about the bottom dollar (money) and the box office (more money) at the end. That’d be some ironic shit, wouldn’t it? High-Rise is a pure, unflinching vision, and, even though it holds true to so much that’s expected from the Ballard novel, it is still a pure Ben Wheatley film.
That goes for the amazing cast, as well. Hiddleston plays joyously charming with the best of them, and his performance as Laing is not only spot-on, it’s unsettling and captivating, sensitive and fearless all at the same time. You want to root for this anti-hero, you’re just not quite sure what exactly you’re rooting for. Hiddleston’s natural allure and his ability to turn on a dime make it a discomforting yet fascinating performance to watch.
The remaining residents of the building are filled with likewise remarkable talent. Luke Evans plays a downstairs, documentary producer who wants to film an exposé on Britain’s prison system, but he may soon be turning his attentions towards the building in which he lives. The tension that comes from Evans’ presence in every scene he’s in is only matched in impressiveness by his amazing hair. Really some A-class flop-sweat here. Elisabeth Moss as the wife of Evans’ character is quiet, almost shy. The fact that the character is 6-months pregnant when the story begins has a hand in that vulnerability, but Moss’ performance, like her turn on “Mad Men,” reveals a strength hidden way down inside. James Purefoy andSienna Miller give memorable performances as members of the upper crust, and Jeremy Irons’ sturdy footing in any role he takes on still proves itself in his portrayal of Royal, the architect of the building whose intentions are left vague and hazy for much of the film. Still, the genuine sophistication and charisma Irons brings to the character robs nearly his every scene. It isn’t hard to imagine the veteran actor in the role of Laing had the Roeg version of “High Rise” gotten off the ground in the ’70s.
With a fantastic, subtle score courtesy of unique composer Clint Mansell, incredible production design from Mark Tildesley, and a brief moment in the film that demands a specific mention – a mid-film montage set to sounds of Portishead covering ABBA’s “SOS” – High-Rise is clearly enough of a filmmaking package to warrant seeking out. Accompanying a film in the hands of Ben Wheatley, though, is another level of craftsmanship and vision entirely.
High-Rise is a masterpiece of an adaptation, a stripped-down, dystopian, cautionary tale that brings to the film world the same twisting psyche and cynical message of Ballard’s original novel and with a nice “Fuck you” attitude to boot. It marks the crowning achievement in Wheatley’s career, something that speaks volumes considering his short but highly impressive filmography. With the same, filmmaking team likely following him to future projects, we are certainly in store for even more masterworks such as this. Ben Wheatley has outdone himself with High-Rise, and J.G. Ballard, I can only assume, would be very proud.