Ben Wheatley’s anarchic monument to JG Ballard’s satire is pupose-built to startle, but its towering ambition comes with a few floors
In Life, the Universe and Everything, the third volume of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, the congenitally hapless Arthur Dent – who has just become a shade less hapless by learning how to fly – collides mid-flight with a “large and extremely disreputable cocktail party”. As he enters the floating soiree, Dent learns that it has been self-sustaining for many years: after the building was made airborne by the physics contingent of the guest list, its revellers began to conduct air raids on surrounding cities for booze and nibbles, which were piped in from hovering tankers to placate the unruly throng.
One wonders whether Adams’ casual inclusion of this social gathering gone to pot (or off to a tee, depending on whether or not you’re one of the guests), was a subtle confession that he’d stumbled upon JG Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise – a tale of cosseted, middle-class civilisation in bubbling, boiling meltdown throughout a skyscraper built to have a far more pacifying effect on its residents than the one achieved. If Adams did, indeed, encounter the book, his little detour would suggest that he couldn’t help but see a knees-up amid the chaos.
The same applies, by the truckload, to Ben Wheatley.
In his adaptation of Ballard’s book, the director of Down Terrace, Kill List and A Field in England blends all the disturbing themes that dominated those works with an amped-up version of the social satire that featured so prominently in his middle film, Sightseers. The result is a savage – and savagely funny – fever dream of late-capitalist systemic failure that has all the brass neck and pit-bull presence to make David Cronenberg’s glacial take on Ballard’s thematically similar Crash look a wee bit polite and restrained.
It’s an important comparison, and one unlikely to be restricted to just this review of Wheatley’s film. Lest we forget, in the UK, Cronenberg’s Crash marked the apex of a battle of wits between cinephiles and the Right-wing press that dominated celluloid debate in the 1990s – a war sparked by the early works of Tarantino, inflamed by Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (derived from a Tarantino script), then propelled into merry overdrive by Cronenberg’s 1996 ram-raid on Cannes, where Crash was honoured with a Special Jury Prize for Audacity and Daring. As a result of that giddy profile, it was subsequently honoured with a bone-headed and interminable campaign to prevent it from being shown in UK cinemas, spearheaded by that timeless standard bearer of truth and justice, The Daily Mail – whose film critic, Christopher Tookey, had launched a personal crusade to run Crash off the road.
God knows what he’d make of High-Rise.
While Cronenberg’s “sex-and-wrecks” opus thrived on the libidinous writhings of urban sophisticates who are aroused in various ways by automobile prangs, Wheatley’s film rummages through a giant, concrete filing cabinet full of homemaking, young professionals and shuffles the contents to pit a host of character flaws against each other. Away from the rarefied and chilly kink-philosophising that fuelled Crash, it is at once a more relatable and more challenging concept – that the getting of comfort should prove so combustible – and Wheatley stops at nothing to attack the façade of consumerist decorum, tucking into his banquet of disorder and disarray with the gusto of a drooling voyeur.
Following a swift, “begin at the end” prologue, which offers a sneak peek at the tower block’s cumulative degeneration, we go back to how the all the fun started by retracing the steps of physiology lecturer Dr Robert Laing (a typically crisp Tom Hiddleston, recently mired in an altogether different case of sick-building syndrome in Crimson Peak). Outwardly confident, possessed of an urbane wit and apparently on top of his profession, Laing shunts himself and a host of cardboard boxes into his self-congratulatory, 25th-floor apartment – quarters that are so awkwardly subdivided by angular, slate-grey walls as to scarcely differ from the interior of an office. Exactly as in Ballard’s book, the mayhem to come is heralded by the crashing of a wine bottle from the balcony above, the vessel shattering across Laing’s patio while he’s soaking rays in his birthday suit.
Barely in charge of the nudging elbow that noisily toasted Laing’s repose is Charlotte Melville (an outstanding Sienna Miller, delivering a performance that almost matches her turn as Tippi Hedren in the 2012 BBC film The Girl). Awoken to his surroundings, Laing baby-steps out of his splendid isolation and begins quite heavily to mingle with Charlotte’s tipsy circle – a petri-dish of viral insecurities masquerading as a trophy room of fulfilled aspirations. Leering after Charlotte is beefy, Rugby-mad documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), ensnared in a wobbly, 2.8-children union with Helen (Elizabeth Moss), an exasperated woman bursting at the seams with the child to the right of the decimal point. Hovering around each gathering like an inquisitive hummingbird is Nathan Steele (Reece Shearsmith) – a man whose gripes with the block’s engineering are equalled only by his zeal for one-upmanship – and bearing low-level witness to the group’s frequent flashes of improper conduct is Charlotte’s young but insatiably curious son, Toby (Louis Suc).
Seduced by each other’s dodgy company, the residents of the block’s lower half slide gently, then not so gently, into excess. People start staying up too late, partying too hard and taking too many drugs, all while drowsily attempting to maintain their robotic, professional routines. Laing’s reputation spreads, and he is soon summoned to the block’s countrified, otherworldly penthouse as physio to live-in architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). In that detached and contemptuous orbit, he awkwardly rubs shoulders with Royal’s wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), her pulchritudinous friend Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory) and loathsome hanger-on Pangbourne (James Purefoy), sparking a fractious association between the lofty, in-house aristocrats and the hoi polloi below.
Grudges take hold and fester. Before long, the Royal Set and the Average Crowd are jabbing at each other with acts of vandalism and kidnap, all against the backdrop of the building’s rapidly faltering infrastructure. If you picture those scenes in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil where Sam Lowry arrives home only to find that the workmen who’ve come to fix up his flat have actually quadrupled the mess, well… that’s what the rest of High-Rise is like. Forced out of the block’s school, the residents’ children continue their lessons in the rubble-strewn, burnt-out basement. Supplies run dry in the huge, built-in supermarket, plunging it into anarchy. The swimming pool reddens with the blood of casual violence. Events seem to culminate in Jane’s ringing entreaty during an orgy at the Royal Suite, “All right, you lot – which one of you is gonna fuck me up the arse?” But amazingly, the film still has about half an hour to go.
Amid the huge enjoyment to be had from Wheatley’s febrile energy and cheerful heedlessness of rules, there is also considerable untidiness to tread around. From about two-thirds of the way through, when Richard embarks upon a gung-ho documentary of the block’s deterioration, the narrative itself becomes increasingly unstable – as does the film’s overall sense of geography. The choppiness stems from Wheatley’s blatant urge to mimic the skittish editing style of Nicholas Roeg (a major influence), rather than honour the pin-sharp clarity of Ballard’s prose. An unfortunate casualty of this is the relationship between Laing and Royal, which was core to the book, and an early example of Ballard’s facility for placing a young, middle-class drone under the wing of a worldly Svengali who harbours a radical but risky vision for reshaping modern life: an arc that recurred so often in the author’s work that some critics accused him of writing the same book over and over again. Here, though, Laing and Royal lose each other in the crowd, and their acquaintance never achieves the piercing, focal intensity that Crash endowed to the bond between the naïve James Ballard (James Spader) and the brutal psychopath Vaughan (Elias Koteas).
Serious questions must also to be asked of Wheatley’s bold, but ultimately fruitless, decision to set the film in a heightened version of the 1970s – the decade in which the book was published – rather than the present day. While it’s amusing to behold such throwback visions as a smorgasbord of period vehicles sprawled across the building’s impossibly vast car park like an army of Dinky Toys, that sheen of hyperreal design carries the unmistakeable scent of nerve failure. In a modern Britain where the class war has returned with a vengeance, where the erosion of civil liberties is putting us under ever-more crushing pressure to conform and behave, where social media has reinforced our vanity and envy, and where every new flat development in one of our urban centres is kitted out with its own, big-brand supermarket, wouldn’t it have been far more terrifying to show us how the insights of Ballard’s book apply so readily to the here and now?
That said, High-Rise is easily Wheatley’s most ambitious and accomplished film to date, and lays on a flurry of jaw-slackening, “Did they really just do that?” moments, the like of which are hard to imagine finding elsewhere for quite a while. Indeed, High-Rise seems predestined to collapse into a loving, cult embrace, and even though it self-consciously echoes other, high-impact portrayals of thuggish tendencies flourishing in urban environments (such as A Clockwork Orange and Fight Club), it still stacks up as a distinctly defiant edifice of alternative thought – albeit with some dicey structural defects.
Words> Matt Packer