Ben Wheatley’s track record is near-perfect. Of the Brit director’s four previous films, two (Kill List, A Field In England) are modern masterpieces while the others (Down Terrace, Sightseers) are a considerable cut above the rest–genre or otherwise.
And now comes High-Rise, Wheatley’s first adaptation, and the first blip in an otherwise peerless filmography (hell, even his ABCs Of Death segment was good).
He isn’t entirely to blame for failing to bring J.G. Ballard’s seemingly un-filmable novel to the screen, of course. Such a gargantuan task would stump even the most seasoned filmmaker, and Wheatley is working with his biggest budget to date, along with a star-studded cast for the very first time in his career.
It’d be like giving the next blockbuster remake to Jeremy Gardner. Except the dude behind The Battery would probably find more humour and joy in doing something this weird on such a massive scale. Wheatley’s High-Rise is an incoherent, boring, overly earnest slog, with few artistic flourishes to alleviate its lengthy two hour run-time.
The story, ostensibly, surrounds new tenant Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston, worlds away from his sexed-up turns in Crimson Peak and Only Lovers Left Alive). A middle-class surgeon and bachelor, Laing soon finds himself torn between the scourge of the working poor on the bottom floors and the allure of the wealthy at the top.
All hell breaks loose, quite literally, after a disagreement involving rights to utilities (or something–some flickering lights are the culprits, apparently). As a result, the classes, and floors, turn to all-out war as everybody struggles to live together in the tower block. And all Laing really wanted was to give his apartment a lick of (grey, of course) paint.
The only bright spark here is Luke Evans, wild-eyed and menacing as the suitably-named Wilder. Crawling through tunnels, caked in blood, he’s the only character worthy of any kind of further inspection. Unfortunately, once Wilder lets loose, he is marginally less interesting, fading into the background madness along with everyone else.
Still, Evans is such a commanding presence one almost wishes it was Wilder’s movie, instead of the drippy Laing. Meanwhile, the problematic treatment of female characters (a sexual assault is jarringly out of place) isn’t helped by Sienna Miller doing her best in an underwritten role, and Elizabeth Moss struggling to master even a basic English accent.
Almost every performance is insanely over the top–Irons devours the scenery, Wheatley regular Reece Shearsmith gurns behind novelty glasses, James Purefoy lays it on even thicker than he did in The Following, which is quite an achievement–and the utterly unconvincing sets, and murky CGI shots of the building’s facade, don’t make High-Rise feel any less stagey.
Wheatley’s greatest misstep, however, is his failure to establish the geography of the building. We know Miller’s Charlotte lives higher up because she hovers a floor above Laing, and that Wilder lives at near basement level, because his wife says so. But otherwise, it’s impossible to decipher who lives where, or why these locations matter outside of the class divide, which is hammered home at every opportunity as though that piece it isn’t glaringly obvious.
On the other hand, gaps in logic abound, like why the inhabitants don’t just flee the tower block when everything goes to shit–it’s not like it’s in a particularly far flung location. There’s no catalyst for the madness, no build up. “It’s like everyone’s suddenly decided to cross some line” remarks one character. It’s all terribly ham-fisted, there’s no subtlety to it, no intrigue or suspense.
And at the heart of it all is Laing, a cold, emotionless husk of a man who, even in Hiddleston’s impressive body, doesn’t connect with anyone in the building-or, for that matter, with the audience. We already know he’s going to survive because he’s there in the aftermath, spit-roasting some poor hound for dinner, so he’s never really in danger (on that note, the film cannot live up to this nutty opening).
Charlotte, on the other hand, feels constantly at risk. But, even though Miller imbues her with some interesting layers, she’s still little more than a sexually adventurous society lady who pays the price for rejecting someone she mistakenly thought was below her. Like the movie itself, it feels as though we’re just scratching the surface with her character.
High-Rise never once feels real. The whole thing is played as a hyper-stylised performance, from the sets to the costumes to the hammy acting. Nobody feels like anything more than an actor delivering (mostly eye-roll-worthy) lines. The hedonism is boring, repetitive and not at all shocking–there’s so much sex on show it becomes monotonous.
The flick is, in essence, a bit of a shambles, an incoherent mess like the building itself. It isn’t anywhere near as captivating or as deep as it thinks it is, or needs to be. Luckily, the image of Hiddleston in the elevator was used to sell the blasted thing–it’s the most interesting moment, visually. And, when a movie isn’t making its mark visually, in its performances, or with its words, it’s really in trouble.
Although Jump is to be commended for adapting the novel, a few choice lines stand out as bizarrely misjudged. Purefoy has a real corker with “he’s raping people he’s not supposed to” which, presumably, is meant as a joke. Hiddleston offers a hazy, lazy narration here and there that adds nothing, and a final radio broadcast hammers the movie’s blindingly obvious metaphors home, just in case you’re really stupid.
High-Rise is made of bizarre choices, but the weirdest thing about it is that it’s a Ben Wheatley film. It’s truly disappointing that this hugely talented filmmaker, who’s proven himself time and time again, has produced such a muddled mess of a movie. He can do weirdness, kitchen sink drama, horror comedy and everything in between.
But, for some reason, he just cannot seem to put this one across. It’s not entirely Wheatley’s fault, of course. The source novel is dense and likely wasn’t going to translate perfectly to screen anyway. But there’s still a sense that maybe the director bit off more than he could chew here, or that, given a proper budget and cast, he went overboard trying to do everything at once.
As it stands (or, rather, crumbles) High-Rise is painfully dull, joyless, pretentious and remarkable only for how utterly unmemorable it is. There is some striking imagery, but everything is so flat, so meaningless, so overdone that none of it connects. It’s all style and no substance. And its style isn’t particularly impressive to begin with, either.
WICKED RATING: (2 / 10)Director(s): Ben Wheatley
Writer(s): Amy Jump
Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons
Studio/ Production Co: Recorded Picture Company
Release: April 28th, 2016 (on demand), May 13th, 2016 (theaters)
Length: 119 mins.