Class warfare has become more and more prominent within films, most notably from the perspective of the lower class. Rags-to-riches is one thing, but to literally deconstruct the entire social hierarchy is something that makes for a far more interesting tale. With that in mind, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise partially manages to ascend beyond the now-typical poor versus rich story by pouring all the elements into a single apartment building, watching the world crumble as its main character stumbles around as little more than an audience surrogate.
Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a high-rise apartment that offers housing for both low-income and high-income persons. Laing is located in the middle of everything, but finds himself traversing between Helen and Richard’s (Elisabeth Moss and Luke Evans, respectively) apartment on the lower floors to the man who built and runs the apartments, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). The movie’s story acts as a reflection on capitalism and social hierarchies of today, but treads familiar ground as most films that deal with similar material, except with too much emphasis.
Laing acts as the only person who tries to remain completely objective, ignoring the bickering and violent acts between the rich and the poor of the high-rise. This poses problems for the film, but also opens up the possibility for the movie to have done something more. In terms of class warfare stories, Laing is the part that rarely gets focused on – the middle-income individual. The reasons for that are simply because it would be boring. Fortunately, with Hiddleston’s strong performance and the way his character behaves, Laing is the most compelling and original part of High-Rise‘s story. He is the anchor, the audience surrogate, and the one who can survive as the classes war against each other, to the point of destruction.
Unfortunately, he is also the character who gets pushed aside most often. This could be seen as the point of the film because he is ultimately uninteresting in the context of poor versus rich, but he is also the most interesting because he isn’t bound to one or the other. While the lower class fuel notions of rioting and the upper class devise ways to suppress a mutiny, the film spends too much time on characters like Richard who are simply there to antagonize. The faults lie in Ben Wheatley’s desire for a grand, destructive story and one that can be contained. He needs to focus on those that antagonize because they are the ones who will bring the ending of his film – an ending that can be seen from a mile away.
What Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump can’t do with their plot, they manage to partially make up for with the film’s comedy. Wheatley has always had a black comedy angle to even his darkest work, which makes a lot of his films feel oddly surreal. With High-Rise, he leans the heaviest he ever has on his comedy, and when he does it works wonders. There are few films as surreal and terrifyingly relatable at the same time, as High-Rise is. I could compliment the always-interesting Laurie Rose for making a lot of the visuals accentuate the madness of the movie, but his cinematography has always been one of the highlights of any Wheatley film.
It is the addition of Clint Mansell to the score of the film that makes High-Rise even more odd, tense, and even horrifying. The combination of every technical aspect of High-Rise brings it to a level above most films of this nature. It’s eye-popping and stunning in its visuals, with a soundscape that matches the insanity of the high-rise. However, this points to my issue with High-Rise as a whole. It excels in almost every regard from acting to cinematography to sound mixing and composition. Its issues all lie in not being all that original, and simply too meandering. It knows what it wants to be, and it does that. But it never feels like it was worth anything to have gone on that journey.
None of this is to say that High-Rise is a bad movie; to the contrary, it is a very well-executed movie. It’s predictable and if it had been tightened up a lot more then it would likely have overcome its shortcomings. The cast is exceptional, with so much charisma and bravado that it is hard to walk away unsatisfied. It’s a technical marvel and filled with so many beautifully composed shots that I don’t think I’ll forget the film for a while. But its a film that offers nothing new besides seeing what happens when you take a large-scale problem and force it into a small physical space.
Screening courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival