Ben Wheatley is ahead of us all. Regardless that his follow-up to A Field in England feels like a film that used to get made in a healthier moviemaking era, or that the JG Ballard novel it’s based on is 45 years old, the British director is always one elusive step ahead of us in terms of what we expect of him. High-Rise is his latest diversion from a path he seems entertainingly bent on avoiding at all costs, and yet it also feels like the summation of everything he’s done up to this point. It’s also perhaps his best movie to date.
Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has just moved into a new tower block, constructed with the idea that it would be a crucible for change – or at least, that’s how the building’s architect (Jeremy Irons) puts it. Finding himself lost in this looming, grey complex and its (literal) layers of warring classes – the rich at the top, the poor below – Laing gradually observes that this simple tower block has turned into a bizarre social experiment of its own design. And yet, with no small glimmer of black humour, he finds it becomes the first place in his life he can call ‘home’. Hiddleston finally gets the lead in a film that fully understands the actor’s unique ability to portray compressed spiritual torment under a glossy veneer of cool, and Laing is the perfect vessel – but High-Rise is really an ensemble piece. Unexpected choices such as Elisabeth Moss as a feckless mother-to-be, or Sienna Miller as the sultry and mysterious flame to Laing, and the genius casting of Luke Evans as a near-rabid documentary-maker, all add up to make this the genuine melting pot that Ballard’s words first succeeded in creating on the page. And it’s these characters which pull the movie in, whenever Wheatley champions his flair for his associative style of editing over regular collaborator Amy Jump’s stark – yet brutally articulate – writing. Most of the director’s formal madness works beautifully (a classical rearrangement of Abba interspersed with supermarket lights flickering on and off, makes for a bemusing yet inexplicably inspiring cut sequence), and even when it feels that he goes off the deep end for long stretches, those beautifully chaotic characters ground it – although that’s something of a lie, as they soon prove themselves to be just as insane as the film that cages them.
In its second half, the movie loses the narrative impetus that it built so carefully during its first hour – and that would be a death knell, were it not replaced with something far greater. Cinema hits the ceiling of its potential when, tone willing, narrative on a lingual level is dropped in favour of the sheer power of visual storytelling. And it’s a type of storytelling that we haven’t really seen since the ‘70s – at least not with these kinds of high-profile names, on this cultural level, or with this breed of ambition backing it during every delightful, delirious second. And it’s all because Wheatley’s tone and Jump’s vision never falter; after all, they are the true architects of this high-rise.
The film’s greatest success is inviting you fully into its mad world, overstuffed with plot points from the book, yet which all somehow fuse together to allow a bigger picture of this multiple-storey hell. Confounding, difficult, frustrating, and sometimes just downright befuddling, it’s also an exhilarating, liberating, one-off experience, and the realisation soon dawns that it could only ever have been this way.