With this colossal disaster, Ben Wheatley proves again that he is a terrible director who has gotten a lot more attention than he deserved

High Rise (film)

High-Rise (2015)

Di­rect­ed by Ben Wheat­ley. Writ­ten by Amy Jump. Star­ring Tom Hid­dle­ston, Je­re­my Irons, Si­en­na Miller, Luke Evans, Elis­a­beth Moss, James Pure­foy, Kee­ley Hawes, Au­gus­tus Prew and Pe­ter Ferdinando.

Oh, Ben Wheat­ley. I don’t know why I in­sist in the hopes that you will come up with any­thing good. Some might say I don’t get you but, hon­est­ly, I couldn’t stand a sec­ond of Sight­seers (2012) and Kill List (2011), both praised by crit­ics. But now, af­ter this dis­as­trous shot at adapt­ing J. G. Ballard’s nov­el of the same name, I fail to see how any­one will be able to de­fend you.

For a long time deemed “un­filmable” since pro­duc­er Je­re­my Thomas de­cid­ed to make it into a film in 1975, Ballard’s nov­el has been a pas­sion project en­vi­sioned for Nico­las Roeg (Don’t Look Now) to di­rect it from a script by Paul May­ers­berg. Thir­ty years lat­er, the idea was to have Vin­cen­zo Na­tali (Cube) make a loose adap­ta­tion writ­ten by Richard Stan­ley. I don’t know what went wrong, but fi­nal­ly — and God knows why — it end­ed up in Wheatley’s hands, and the fact that High-Rise turned out to be such a colos­sal dis­as­ter is no sur­prise to me. It only makes me sigh in silent re­sent­ment. Oh, I nev­er learn.

Adapt­ed by none oth­er than Amy Jump — Wheatley’s wife who was also re­spon­si­ble for those two afore­men­tioned works — High-Rise fol­lows Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hid­dle­ston) as he rec­ol­lects from a rav­aged forty-sto­ry tow­er block the last three months that led him to that point af­ter he moved into an apart­ment on the 25th floor fol­low­ing the death of his sis­ter. The cut­ting-edge tow­er was built by renowned ar­chi­tect An­tho­ny Roy­al (Je­re­my Irons) as a true mi­cro­cosm of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem: the rich­est ones liv­ing in the up­per floors and the ones with less eco­nom­ic pow­er oc­cu­py­ing the low­er floors. The build­ing pro­vides every­thing and all con­ve­niences in­clud­ing a su­per­mar­ket, gym, spa, swim­ming pools and a school.

Once there, Laing meets fel­low ten­ants Char­lotte Melville (Si­en­na Miller), a sin­gle moth­er liv­ing with her son, and Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er who lives in a low-lev­el apart­ment with his preg­nant wife He­len (Elis­a­beth Moss). Many oth­er peo­ple ap­pear as Laing at­tends par­ties thrown by the res­i­dents, in­clud­ing Royal’s wife Ann (Kee­ley Hawes). But it doesn’t mat­ter, re­al­ly. It is even point­less to dis­cuss what he does and his re­la­tion­ship with the oth­er ten­ants, when every­thing that hap­pens and every­one he meets seems com­plete­ly ar­bi­trary from the get-go. Things oc­cur as if in a dream, and we are left with a strong im­pres­sion that it is all sup­posed to be, in fact, more of a vi­su­al ex­pe­ri­ence than any­thing else.

To be hon­est, af­ter the film end­ed, I took a look at the de­tailed plot sum­ma­ry to make sure I hadn’t missed any­thing, and it wasn’t my fault that every­thing looked so aw­ful­ly messy and con­fus­ing. It was not my fault, though. Wheat­ley di­rects High-Rise more like a flashy art film, or an ob­ject. The high-rise looks fu­tur­is­tic with its strat­i­fied floors when seen from the out­side but con­trast­ed with old cars that are ob­vi­ous­ly from the 1970s. Ann’s fan­cy par­ty is an 18th-cen­tu­ry post-retro-ro­co­co cos­tume par­ty to the sound of ABBA’s SOS as per­formed by Clint Mansell and his vi­o­lins. A lot of at­ten­tion is giv­en es­pe­cial­ly to the pro­duc­tion de­sign, like the styl­ish el­e­va­tors and Royal’s gar­den that seems like out of a fairy tale.

Wheat­ley must think of him­self as a real artist, shat­ter­ing a glass of wine on the hood of a car in slow mo­tion be­fore do­ing the same with a man’s body. When he places a red­dish sun be­hind the high-rise with dis­so­nant mu­sic, he makes it seem like the devil’s tow­er. But it is all very ob­vi­ous, with no rec­og­niz­able vi­su­al style or per­son­al­i­ty — much like the film’s lack of struc­ture and di­rec­tion. At some point, I won­dered in dis­be­lief if I was re­al­ly wit­ness­ing all that or if I was hal­lu­ci­nat­ing. There is a mo­ment when a char­ac­ter phys­i­cal­ly at­tacks an­oth­er one say­ing that not even the Gene­va Con­ven­tion could save him (and if that was sup­posed to be fun­ny, I can­not say). I feared he was re­fer­ring to me.

But if I men­tion the dis­joint­ed struc­ture of High-Rise, what is there to say about a huge gallery of char­ac­ters who too are more like de­vices than real peo­ple? Tom Hid­dle­ston may be tal­ent­ed and gor­geous with his per­fect cheek­bones and hands (“an ex­cel­lent spec­i­men,” as Char­lotte points out), but he can’t do much with a one-di­men­sion­al char­ac­ter who los­es his mind for some in­scrutable rea­son. When he cries to the sound of Portishead’s ren­di­tion of SOS, I have ab­solute­ly no idea why he does so. And all the mad­ness that takes place in the high-rise can­not jus­ti­fy most of his ran­dom de­ci­sions or why he would re­fer to him­self in the third per­son when nar­rat­ing his sto­ry to us. He is just an emp­ty shell and noth­ing else.

Much like all of the oth­er char­ac­ters. About them, we have only glimpses that don’t amount to much; mo­ments con­ceived as satir­i­cal bits. Wheat­ley wants to mock the ridicu­lous deca­dence of that so­ci­ety by show­ing the fail­ing in­fra­struc­ture, the rot­ten fruits in the su­per­mar­ket and how no po­lice ap­pear af­ter someone’s sui­cide. But the satire is child­ish and sil­ly. Like when we see He­len with a huge preg­nant bel­ly smok­ing a cig­a­rette and watch­ing a soap opera on TV, or the fact that Wilder is a hate­ful lu­natic who tor­tures women. Is he sup­posed to be a rev­o­lu­tion­ary? “Pos­si­bly the san­est man in the build­ing,” Laing says. I beg to differ.

Most of what we see looks just ter­ri­bly heavy-hand­ed as far as satire goes. A pic­ture of Che Gue­vara on a wall is ob­vi­ous in its im­pli­ca­tions. We see the high-so­ci­ety snobs danc­ing like cra­zies to Jo­hann Se­bas­t­ian Bach while Laing is hav­ing sex with his face cov­ered in paint. Art­sy, I sup­pose. Not to men­tion a bizarre scene of mur­der seen through a kalei­do­scope. All filmed with a self-im­por­tance present even in Mansell’s op­er­at­ic score.

But it doesn’t mat­ter how clever Wheat­ley thinks his film is (it def­i­nite­ly isn’t) or how vi­su­al­ly spell­bind­ing he thinks it all looks (again, it doesn’t). The fact is that he only proves to me once again what I have been say­ing since his two oth­er films: that he is just a ter­ri­ble di­rec­tor who has got­ten a lot more at­ten­tion than he de­serves. But like I said, I nev­er learn.


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