HIGH-RISE – Fantastic Fest

Not gonna lie folks, when I heard about all the walkouts and outrage this film inspired when it played the Toronto International Film Festival, it only made me hunger for it even more. Ben Wheatley is a young master of cinema, and his ease tap-dancing on the line between the profane and the profound has only strengthened from film to film. So, sitting down with a packed house at Fantastic Fest, I was raring to go for whatever madness he had up his sleeve.

And this, this, is my jam right here. I adore Ben Wheatley movies (as you may know from here) and High-Rise is everything he’s great at condensed into a diamond and fired out of a goddamn cannon into your goddamn head.

Based on a book from J.G. Ballard, High-Rise makes gleeful bloodsport of social climbing, with Tom Hiddleston’s Dr. Laing navigating a hallucinogenic nightmare that is the high-tech high rise building of the title. Laing wants nothing more than to be left alone with his own grief and his own demons, but he finds himself caught between the regal denizens of the upper floors and the hostile members of the lower floors, personified by Luke Evans and Luke Evans’ mutton-chops, in a nearly feral performance.

The easiest way to describe the dynamics of the building in High-Rise is that it’s Snowpiercer but EVERYONE sucks. There is no aggrieved working class being trod upon by the hyper-wealthy. Instead, even the folks in the lower floors are portrayed as living comfortable, well-maintained lives. It’s just that they want more, and the people on the top floors want more too, and the people on the top want even more of the more that they already have. The tensions between them mount and mount until it explodes into out-and-out chaos.

My good buddy and Fantastic Fest benefactor Tom Nix was frustrated by a very basic question: Why don’t they just get out of the building? This isn’t a Mad Max or even a Dredd-like situation where everyone is enclosed because there’s nothing beyond the enclosure. People are free to leave whenever they like, but they don’t like to. Instead they tunnel even further into the building, everyone going mad in their own little ways and building their own civilization of barbaric depravity and hedonistic leisure.

Tom’s right: from a narrative standpoint, this makes no sense. But Wheatley’s never been much in the way of ‘sense’, and instead High Rise creates an atmosphere of hyper-reality and dream logic, lulling you into the day-and-day life of the building. There’s no specific moment when things go from civilized to savage, no moment when you cross from waking to dreaming.

Technically, Wheatley’s at the absolute top of his game here. The movie is beyond beautiful to look at even (or especially) when it is at its most gruesome. Wheatley loves to combine his cerebral concerns with giddy gore, and High Rise is loaded with gorgeous gore that I’m sure will send the Hiddleston Tumblr-crowd into fits. You can see Wheatley delighting in having more money to play with this time out, from the layers of period detail to the almost painterly compositions. He’s managed to combine this polish with the same knack for raw, assaultive imager that first brought him to prominence (there’s a brawl between Hiddleston and a nameless assailant that is very much the spiritual descendant from the fight scene in Down Terrace, Wheatley has just gotten that much better at staging/shooting such sequences).

Clint Mansell’s score is the perfect soundscape for this sort of waking-nightmare film, going from unearthly cheery to full-on freakout at the drop of a hat. Mansell’s been A-#1 for a while now, and you can expect to hear isolated tracks from this film in trailers for years and years to come.

The cast is so stuffed with riches that it’s hard to even know where to begin. Hiddleston makes a strong case for movie star status with this one, taking a character who is defined by his extreme passivity and infusing him with an inner life and depth that no written words could contain. And Evans just walks off with the movie, radiating savage charisma even as he spends the entire last third caked head-to-toe in blood.

Elizabeth Olsen and Sienna Miller are heartbreaking as women battling for standing and survival in the building, while Jeremy Irons lords over the cast as Mr. Royal, the architect of the building and inhabitant of the tippy-top floor. And whatever movie is left over from Evans is picked up by Wheatley veteran Reece Shearsmith as a nutty little neighbor of Laing that finds his true calling in the depravity that the building descends into.

High-Rise is a brutally violent, socially-apoplectic satire of capitalism and social-climbing, and yet all I’m left thinking about is just how damn fun the movie is. I was cackling throughout this one, from the bone-dry wit to the explosions of gore to the sheer giddy energy of Wheatley’s craft. There’s not a frame of this film that doesn’t feel pored over and exhaustively though through, and yet the results are never ponderous. You can almost hear Wheatley and his collaborators giggling just off camera over each fresh bit of madness that they can unleash on Hiddleston and the rest.

I suspect that there are going to be many people who reject the film out of hand, either because they never feel pulled into the film’s slipstream or because the content is abhorrent (which it is. Wonderfully so). But I’ve also spoken to multiple folks who are agnostic at best on Ben Wheatley but who turned rapturous after this film.

As a true-believer, High-Rise is everything I have loved about his earlier films, refined and perfected. Even his love for kaleidoscopic hallucinogenic sequences finds a home in High-Rise. With a movie this fucking great under his belt, there’s only question remaining for Wheatley:

How the hell does he top this?

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the author

Brendan Foley lives in Massachusetts, where he has made a habit out of not knowing what he's doing. He'd like to make a career out of it. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter: @TheTrueBrendanF, and his ramblinger ramblings on Tumblr. Three years from now, it will be revealed that he was dead the entire time.