Ben Wheatley’s Ballard adaptation deliriously embraces social breakdown in a dystopian past future.
We open on a doctor, Laing (Tom Hiddleston), clothes torn and paint-spattered, as he cooks a pedigree dog on an improvised barbecue on his balcony, after declining neighbour Steele (Reece Shearsmith)’s offer to have a tipple with a clearly dead man. Back: the doctor has moved into a flat nearer the top than the bottom of an ultramodern building that towers over its undeveloped commuter belt surroundings, the work of architect Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives at the penthouse/garden estate at its peak. It looks spectacular, but the cracks soon show. There are power outages. Rules are ignored. The technology isn’t working as it should. And there’s a growing sense of friction between floors. The toffs at the top are appalled at the likes of Laing showing up for a costumed ball with the wrong clothes and an inappropriately priced bottle of vino. And lower down the ladder, chippy cameraman Wilder (Luke Evans) bristles with revolutionary ire when he finds his kids are excluded from the swimming pool during an upper crust social. When Laing’s upstairs neighbour, the liberated, and resented Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) throws a party, it simmers with boozy anger and frustration. Things get out of hand. There’s a beating. A suicide. Rival parties are planned in retaliation. A collective madness starts to take hold. The residents venture out of the building less and less, and then not at all. Resources, food and wine are running out and are to be battled over. Pets become food. Society within the tower tears itself apart, and re-organises.
J.G. Ballard’s High Rise has long seemed the novel in his oeuvre begging most for cinematic adaptation (well, either High Rise or Concrete Island) – at least, after Cronenberg’s Crash made it viable to imagine any being filmed at all. It has neither the mega-budget requirements of his early SF, nor the gnomic intractability of The Atrocity Exhibition, but manages to fit his themes into a single location with a limited cast of characters. That said, it was always going to be odd. I’m amazed that what has finally emerged is this successful in capturing the flavour of the book, or at least a warped and woozy hybrid of Ballard and director Ben Wheatley/writer Amy Jump’s sensibilities.*
Initially the urban setting might seem to signal a departure from the folk horror beats that were building through Wheatley’s Kill List, Sightseers and especially A Field In England, but a recurring theme in that movement is the malign and strange affect of landscape on personality, which is an obsession Ballard shared. High Rise takes us away from the ancient outdoors to more modern interiors, but the creeping unease is the same. It isn’t some viral contagion or chemical that is causing the madness (or even the porno-parasites of David Cronenberg’s Shivers, which riffs on similar ideas). It’s the architecture. Royal wants his building to be ‘a crucible for change’, which it most definitely is, though clearly not the change he expects or desires. He can fret all he likes over whether he has ‘left out some vital element’ but it’s too late, the tower exerts its own logic, and there’s no stopping evolution. As the upper classes’ thuggish enforcer Simmons (Dan Renton Skinner) tells him, ‘I don’t work for you, I work for the building.’
The methodology of this madness is evoked through a million cuts. Wheatley sets up tightly edited rhythms within the film showing the rituals of the block dwellers as they go to and from work, shop, swim, ride the lifts and live their lives, and then quietly introduces disruptions, unsettling images that increase in frequency, the pattern of things changes, visual and verbal cues build from a subliminal wrongness into full blown lunacy. A telling tracking shot at the halfway mark takes from one end of a supermarket display to the other, going from fresh fruit to rotting mush. Before that, the party scene at Charlotte’s place is a marvel of drunken momentum and shifting tones, evoking Brit sex farce and brutal Alan Clark aggro along the way, and then suddenly changing gear for an alarming slow mo sequence of the coked up Wilder dancing, suddenly isolated in a strange tribal testosterone display, a bit of business that recurs in the penthouse apartment later in the story. In Jump’s excellent screenplay, the dialogue is initially dominated by the party chit chat and small talk, the flirty one-liners and bitter put-downs whereby the residents subtly and not so subtly jockey for status, but here it always seems to be freighted with double meaning, to the point where even a banal exchange in the tower’s supermarket, (‘keep the change’ – ‘there isn’t any’) feels loaded with portent.
In the novel, if I remember rightly, language breaks down to caveman grunting as the devolution takes hold. But here, deliciously, the barbarity goes hand in hand with a weirdly civilised eloquence. Thus the top floor is full of men discussing their insane and brutal plans for the suppression of the lower floors in language befitting a golf club or yachting marina, a rugger club bumptiousness that wholly fails to recognise the home counties Mad Max stylings of their current situation. There’s something hilariously inappropriate about somebody raising the sudden prevalence of rape, violence and factional warfare with ’I’d watch out if I were you, there’s some very unhappy bunnies bouncing about’.
It’s intoxicating…. with the emphasis on the toxic, it’s a bit of a phantasmagoria, cleverly weighted to keep you off balance and back footed. Most filmmakers making a tale this open to allegorical readings would surely decide to go for a vague and unspecified mise en scène. Instead, Wheatley very specifically anchors his High-Rise in the Britain of the mid to late 70s, with an exacting eye for detail, and cultural signifiers to the fore: there’s a swinging Alan Whicker lookalike, a copy of Action Comic (with the ‘Kids Rule OK’ cover), pound notes, indoor smoking, and not one but two cover versions of ABBA’s ‘S.O.S’. This seems appropriate, and not just because the novel dates from 1975. The film consciously evokes the 70s cinema of Lindsay Anderson, Buñuel, Roeg and Cammel, and works in that heady vein, being an artful treatment of difficult ideas rather than the usual elaborate treatment of banal ideas that dominates your modern multiplex. It’s dense and delirious, both in words and images, in a way that defies simple readings. The sexual politics alone would take a thesis to unpick, moving from swingin’ Carry On innuendo, through nasty assault and into a kind of maternal utopianism.
I’ve seen the film twice now, and think at the first viewing I was simply too dazzled for critical thinking. I just loved this combination of things, these performances, this dialogue, that music.** The second time, I still loved it, and I’d see it again in a heartbeat, but then I’ve been quite taken with everything Wheatley has put out, whilst being quite aware that not everybody feels the same; a press screening of Sightseers had me grinning from ear to ear, surrounded by people who made their loathing quite audible. Balls to them. You’re either on Wheatley’s wavelength… or you’re wrong. And I’ll fight anyone who says different. But maybe that’s the architecture talking.
*Jump has clearly worked her socks off trying to give the characters the motivations and story arcs required by modern cinema. Ballard was happier to work in a distinctly chillier, more oblique register. Horses for courses.
** Clint Mansell, playing a blinder, and some very well chosen tunes, The Portishead ‘SOS’ moment is particularly effective.
Watch the trailer: