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May 20, 2016

In High-Rise, Ben Wheatley mines the surreal and the subversive


John Semley / The Globe and Mail

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

So begins High-Rise, English novelist J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel about an ultra-modern, super-luxe apartment complex that turns into a Lord of the Flies-style tribal war zone.

The book’s first line is often cited, and with good reason: It plainly captures the coalescing of the surreal, the grotesque and the matter-of-fact that can be described as “Ballardian.” It’s the sort of sardonic, dystopian fiction that tends to take hold in the minds of burgeoning weirdos. Such was the case with British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, who has recently adapted Ballard’s novel as a major-ish motion picture.

“I’m gonna sound like a pensioner,” Wheatley says, in an interview conducted just after High-Rise’s premiere at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, “but back in the day, it was hard to research things. You couldn’t just go to Wikipedia. You held onto those bits, the books you hear people talking about in hushed tones. That was my kind of education in the counterculture: entry-level drugs into a much wider world of weirdness.”

Wheatley has made a low-key career mining this world of weirdness – and indulging his own stylistic peculiarities. His films’ moods, and sometimes their genres, morph almost imperceptibly. His auspicious 2009 debut, the kitchen-sink crime thriller Down Terrace, unfolds in a manner so humdrum that it’s difficult to even recognize it as a Mob movie. His follow-up, 2011’sKill List, similarly eschews cliché, shifting from domestic drama to hit-man flick to pagan horror movie while sustaining a suffocating tension throughout. In the horror-comedy Sightseers (2012), a boring camping holiday in the English countryside left-turns into a lovers-on-the-run bloodbath. And the English Civil War-set A Field in England, from 2013, shoots the starch of British history through with psychedelic hues, an examination of power and madness that’s equal parts Werner Herzog’sAguirre: The Wrath of God and Bob Rafelson’s Head. Ben Wheatley is, to risk understating it, an interesting filmmaker.

And High-Rise – an adaptation of a beloved cult novel starring smirking Marvel Studios villain Tom Hiddleston as the dog-munching Dr. Laing – marks a step closer toward the mainstream for a filmmaker who has long obeyed his artier tendencies, as if beholden to the sinister whispers of some demonic muse.

Instead of lapsing into visual and stylistic cliché for his ostensible “breakout,” Wheatley’s High-Rise strikes a balance between the Ballardian and the, let’s call it, Wheatley-esque.

“I make the films I make despite myself,” Wheatley explains. “I’ve come to terms with that over the years. I don’t really have any say in it.” Of course, what Wheatley really means is that he has all the say. His films are every inch the work of a singular stylistic bent. He edits his own films, developing their hypnotic rhythms, and works closely alongside wife, screenwriter and creative partner Amy Jump.

Wheatley’s style – the jumpy editing patterns, the mood of dreamlike alienation, the development of protagonists who seem to float through their own stories – perfectly suits High-Rise’s themes of revolution and class antagonism. And while High-Rise unfolds in a retro-futuristic 1970s, its depiction of a crumbling middle class reflects certain present-day realities. “It’s the degrading of the teacher and the engineer and all these people who sat in the middle,” he says. “They had a skill, and you had to respect that. And now nobody cares.”

Unlike other recent films that voguishly tap into the struggle between have and have-not (Joon-ho Bong’s runaway-train class-war showpieceSnowpiercer comes to mind), and unlike a lot of actual historical revolutions, there’s no real “flashpoint” for the social upheaval in High-Rise. That is: There’s no single moment that seems to catalyze the lingering revolutionary energy; no Boston Tea Party or storming of the Bastille. Instead, the skirmish between the working- and middle-class lower floors and the upper-crust penthouse-dwellers unfolds as if it were somehow predestined. Garbage piles up, alliances form, the tenants turn to fits of orgiastic violence, and just straight-up orgies.

When the building’s architect – the scheming, seemingly omniscient Royal, played with sallow perfection by Jeremy Irons – says that he designed the apartment tower as a “crucible for change,” he seems to be acknowledging that it was conceived of as a social experiment. It’s an abject illustration of that line from Marx that the “old collapsing bourgeois society” is pregnant with the social order that will topple it. It’s less about devolving into a state of barbarism than revealing the depravity and violence inherent in the class system, where a man can dine on a dog as if it’s the most natural thing the world.

As to the prospect of a real-world revolution, one that may mend social divisions of class and capital, Wheatley sees it unfolding at the same alienated, measured deliberateness he depicts in High-Rise. It’s not a possibility, but a probability. “It’s not imminent,” says the director. “It’s happening right now.”