“High-Rise” is divisive, difficult, and ridiculously brilliant, a 1970s-set film that mirrors 2016 with shocking preciseness. Some will find it horrifying, others exhilarating. But no one will find director Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel even remotely boring.
Thematically complex, visually and sonically bold, “High-Rise” is quite unlike any other film in recent memory. However, its antecedents are clear: “Clockwork Orange”-era Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg’s Ballard adaptation, “Crash,” and even Cronenberg’s early apartment-set horror classic “Shivers.”
Above all else, this film about class warfare and the gradual descent into chaos at a tower block takes the “predictive fiction” (as Wheatley calls it) of Ballard’s novel and offers it as a reflection of today. It does so with savage humor, gurgling sexuality and an air of ever-approaching menace.
Tom Hiddleston stars as Robert Laing, a likable if aimless young doctor, and the actor is perfectly suited to play an individual who clearly harbors his share of secrets. It’s no wonder the actor is a rumored candidate to replace Daniel Craig as 007, as he captures the handsome roughness and dark mystery Craig and Connery brought to the part.
He’s also, well, statuesque. “You look much better without your clothes on,” he’s told by Sienna Miller’s Charlotte Melville soon after she spots him sunbathing in the nude. “You’re lucky; not many people do.”
Dr. Laing is the newest resident at an apartment in London with countless amenities: a supermarket, a large pool, a gym. But the high-rise is also home to a peculiar class system – the higher the floor, the higher the class – as well as an unequal sharing of (electrical) power.
As Laing quickly discovers, the elegantly wasted upper-classes refer with a sneer to the “lower people,” and “what’s going on down at street level.”
Indeed, there are some unique characters there in the lower realms, including surly documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), his sad-eyed wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), and the mysterious, wildly sexy Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller). Overseeing it all from the top floor is “the architect,” Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons).
In between is all manner of turmoil. Dr. Laing finds himself in the thick of this class conflict, and is drawn into complex relationships with Charlotte, Helen, and, most importantly, the enigmatic Anthony Royal.
About one hour in, power outages ensue and the world of the high-rise tips into complete disorder. What follows is an unrelenting second half of chaos, blood-lust and confusion. It’s an effective journey into madness, if less involving than that stunning first half.
The film becomes a quite literal distillation of class warfare in a contained setting. Think of it as a sex-charged, dog-eating, orgiastic biosphere. Then add claw-sharp humor. (As one fat-cat puts it, “Commandeer all necessary resources – booze, canapés, cocktail onions …”)
Wheatley’s visionary direction keeps things humming for the entirety of its nearly two-hour runtime. With his longtime collaborator Amy Jump, he’s previously helmed cult favorites “Kill List,” “Sightseers” and “A Field in England.” Those films had their moments, but “High-Rise” is his first complete success.
“High-Rise” is not a backward-facing period piece, nor a glimpse into the future; it is a sobering look into a recognizable present, and that’s what makes the film a worthy adaptation of a literary master.
Also adding to the film’s seductive allure is the cast. The aforementioned Hiddleston, so compelling in the recent miniseries “The Night Manager,” makes Laing drip with a mix of modesty and sarcasm. His first lines – “For all its inconveniences, Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise” – captures the film’s cheerfully absurdist tone. And Irons, Miller, Moss and Evans are spot-on.
Meanwhile, the design of the buildings, inside and out, is creepily memorable. In addition, Clint Mansell’s stately score is assisted by a stunning ABBA cover (!) from Portishead and a cheeky song from post-punk heroes the Fall. The latter follows the disembodied voice of Margaret Thatcher, and that’s no accident.
There are no tidy conclusions in “High-Rise,” nor should there be. What’s there instead is a cinematic nightmare of adrenaline and ecstasy, and the feeling that comes from watching a complex masterpiece. Wheatley, Ballard, Hiddleston, “the architect” and Abba make for a brilliant cocktail.
4 stars (out of 4) Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons. Directed by Ben Wheatley. 119 minutes. Rated R for violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language and some drug use.