“Sometimes he found it difficult to believe”
‘High-Rise,’ Ben Wheatley’s adaption of J.G Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, is a beautiful mess of a film. I mean that as a compliment, not a criticism. From start to finish, the viewer cannot help but “surrender to a logic more powerful than reason.” Characters come and go with barely a name to identity them by, events occur without cause and chaos descends without any particular reason. I’d never stand for that in any other film, but ‘High-Rise’ mixes all of these flaws together to create something rather special, and something that no doubt will be rewarding after multiple viewings.
The film begins three months after Dr Robert Laing moves a new apartment block, the so-called high rise. We’re in the 1970s, by the way! It is part of a construction project headed by architect Antony Royal (played by Jeremy Irons), who lives in the same apartment block on the highest floor. Laing chewing on a dog’s limb and the narration (in Laing’s voice) says that “for all its inconveniences, Laing was satisfied with life in the high rise, ready to move forward and explore life.” We are then taken back three months to see how Laing and the rest of the resident of the high-rise descended into a state of anarchy…
“Is it always like this here?”
We see Laing’s daily life at the beginning of his tenancy, exercising, walking around his apartment, and going to work. We see him slicing open a human head and ripping the skin off to reveal the skeleton below. Ballard’s work is a kind of dissection; the dissection of the human psyche (or at least, the English psyche). The veneer of social inhibitions is removed and we peer at what’s hidden beneath them. He wasn’t much concerned with things like plot or logic. That’s part of his brilliance, and also part of the brilliance of ‘High-Rise.’
Although we are promised the reasons why the residents chose anarchy in the high-rise, that promise is never delivered. Rather, it’s displayed as a mania, a psychotic episode that all the residents indulge in. The residents are given every available convenience: a supermarket, a gym, garbage disposal chutes on each floor, a swimming pool. It’s designed to give the residents an easy life. But the electricity cuts outs (mostly on the lower floors), the garbage chutes become blocked, and daily life is reduced to a test of survival. There are hints and glimpses of the class warfare that’s more thoroughly elaborated upon in the novel, but it doesn’t seem important in the film.
“You sit there and think about what you’ve done”
Not only is the cause behind the anarchy a mystery, but most of the characters are as well. If they’re male, we know them by professions (Laing, a doctor; Wilder, a documentarian, etc). If they’re female, then they are defined in relation to their male partner. Laing may be the voice-over for the beginning and end of the film, but is he the main character? What about Wilder, or Royal? Wilder’s story especially becomes important towards the end of the film. But their motivations, as ever, remain in darkness. For Ballard, as for Wheatley, the characters are only ciphers, only figurines to spout dialogue (some of which is ripped straight out the book’s descriptions of events).
So far, so negative? But these are not negatives at all. ‘High-Rise’ is far greater than the sum of its parts. The empty characters are only empty on the surface; look beyond and you’ll find far more complicated characters than in your average HBO drama. Look at the direction and photography at the beginning of the film. It’s steady and sterile, just like the characters we see. However, as the chaos progresses, the camerawork becomes more steady, almost like a handheld camera in some places (maybe they missed a trick by not making the film a found-footage one, discovered in the cine-camera of Wilder’s?). It spins, presents scenes on a slant, and adds to the sense of illogic and disorder. We are disorientated by it, just as we are with the lack of story. We are used to films holding us by the hand, telling us in specific detail (sometimes several times!) what’s happened, what’s happening, what’s going to happen. Violence is often hinted at but rarely seen, prohibiting our visceral pleasure from such scenes. ‘High-Rise’s’ explicit unpredictability is part of its seductive charm; the viewer can never tell what’s going to happen from one minute to the next.
Wheatley handles has possibly given us the most accurate adaption of Ballard’s work ever. It’s a film that rallies against every rule of the film book, just as Ballard rallied against every rule of the novel book (if that makes sense…). It escapes definition at every point. Is it a scathing satire about capitalism? Is it a commentary on the nature of human nature? ‘High-Rise’ is open to multiple interpretations or none at all. Admittedly, I was bored at times, but appreciated the boredom in a peculiar way. There are stretches where nothing happens, but the wait is always rewarded (especially the montage to the Portishead cover of S.O.S; possibly my favourite movie scene of the year!). Full of glaring flaws increase its quality, ‘High-Rise’ is the type of experimental film that we rarely seen nowadays. More often than not, the experiment works.
VERDICT: 8/10. A hard film to pin down, but that’s part of ‘High-Rise’s’ very nature. Sit down and be prepared for something that will torture you in the most pleasurable fashion…
Leave your thoughts/comments below!