There will be few films released this year that will divide audiences as much as “High-rise.” Some will see this movie, that just opened in theaters April 29, and on VOD the day before, as an insidiously clever allegory that rips the whole British class structure a new one. Others will see it merely as a depressing slog, as claustrophobic and depressing as the dilapidated apartment complex where it all takes place. And both assessments would be fair. This is a challenging film that is very hard to like, but there are many things to admire. That is, if you can get past the first five minutes where Tom Hiddleston barbecues a dog.
Yes, that’s how pitch black this satire is as it starts out with its main character Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston) sacrificing an Alsatian hound so he has something to eat after supplies have run out in the once chic apartment complex where he’s holed up. Thankfully, the filmmakers don’t show the dog being killed, but they do linger on his hind paw on a spit. It’s that kind of movie, one that doesn’t flinch from showing the ugliness of man, particularly when he’s driven to extremes to survive by a cold, mean world.
This isn’t “The Revenant”, however. In that acclaimed 2015 film, Leonardo DiCaprio’s 1800’s fur trapper was wounded by a grizzly attack and left for dead, justifying his all-or-nothing gambit to remain alive that included eating raw bison liver and taking shelter in a horse’s carcass to keep from freezing. Here, it’s not the wilderness threatening the lead character, but a vicious English society at play in 1970’s London. Based on the 1975 J. G. Ballard novel of the same name, this film sticks very close to his plotting and tone. It pushes its satire to dark excesses that make it hard to watch or enjoy.
After testing the audience in those first moments, the film flashes back to three months earlier when everything was rosier before descending into a downward survivalist’s tale. The story starts with a swank new high-rise opening on the outskirts of London that is a destination address for its occupants. This state-of-the-art complex contains all the conveniences of modern life at that time: high speed elevators, indoor swimming pools, restaurants, even a grocery store on premise. And it’s a technological dreamland.
Designed by architect Anthony Royal (a slyly sinister Jeremy Irons), it lures Laing who likes the flashy address as he is a successful doctor who’s cultivating the image of an elitist who deserves the best. But others who move into the building feel they are due too. Some are working class stiffs who’ve achieved success and have moved on up to this better level of housing, but they soon realize that they’re not being treated equally here anymore than they were before. They realize that higher floored tenants get better amenities, as well as access to the pools and private parties, and soon the caste system is enabling the lower floored people to build up a head of steam that will lead to chaos and destruction.
Tenants like the Wilders (Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss) start battling for their rights in the building versus those of the rich who have more and seem to be hoarding. The Wilder male, in particular, is just that, as his temper and economical frustrations grow exponentially with each perceived slight. Soon, he’s growing, well, wilder and wilder, sabotaging pool parties, vandalizing parts of the building, and even killing some of the 1 percenter’s pets. (This film turns a lot of canines into collateral damage.)
He, and others on the lower floors, start a war with those at the top, especially when the building starts malfunctioning. Elevators stall, lights go out, supplies don’t show up, and water doesn’t run out of the faucets. Technology that’s supposed to make life better is making things worse. The lower floors take this all personally and turn the place into a war zone. Quickly, the rules of society completely break down.
Wilder (an on-the-nose name, for sure), and those in the building become soldiers as well as P.O.W.’s of this once shining fortress. Even Laing starts to devolve, going from a cool and passive snob to one who fancies himself able to survive because of he’s got a keener brain. Again, rather symbolically, his area of expertise is the study of the mind. This film is nothing if not consistent with such metaphors.
Soon the entire building has abandoned all hierarchy and everyone, from upper class to lower, starts giving into their primal urges. Death, dilapidation and ugliness become factors in everyday life in the high-rise. The occupants even occupy the building as if the outside world doesn’t even exist. They not only stop being neighborly, but they abandon their jobs and hole up in the high-rise, foregoing anything and anyone from the outside world.
Some audiences will scratch their heads and ask why wouldn’t these people just leave this crappy home and find a better one? But this film isn’t really about such logic, or even characters as real, recognizable people. These are characters created as symbols. Why, the architect who built this tower of decay is named Royal, for heaven’s sake. Of course, he lives on the top floor, literally and figuratively, and looks down at everyone in the building below him. Any commentary on the ruling family of England is purely the intention of author and adaptation.
By the time bodies are piling up, people are wearing the same filthy clothes all week long, and residents start doing their laundry in the filthy waters that are left of the polluted swimming pool, rational thinking audiences may throw their hands up in disgust. They may think that any shred of sympathy for such stubborn fools staying in the tower isn’t worthy of a filmgoer’s attention. And that’s exactly the way Ballard wanted it, and it’s certainly the goal of director Ben Wheatley and his screenwriter wife Amy Jump as well.
The goal here is to present a bleak, pitch black social satire that indicts caste systems, economic disparity, government rule, and even, British culture. Laing’s character is presented as a handsome, fit and well-dressed gentlemen, but underneath the picture perfect surface is a cold and even menacing lead character. Ballard, Wheatley and Jump all see him as representative of upper-crust British society. One that pretends to be courteous and caring, but will likely barbecue your dog given the right provocation.
And while this film may take place in the 70’s, it certainly rings appropriate to today what with its parallels to our modern world. As the characters in this story isolate themselves, one can’t help but see its similarities to our current political season with a leading candidate or two talking about deporting millions, and building great big walls to keep out the have not’s. And is Royal not the epitome of the wealthiest in this world who determine and manipulate markets, crash economies, and stifle the growth of the middle class? Isn’t the crumbling infrastructure of the building on display in this film directly analogous to the deterioration of our roads, bridges, and buildings everywhere?
Of course it is. And the filmmakers do a terrific job of making every last point like that. But is it enough to lure audiences into the theaters? Can word-of-mouth of such build an audience over its run? We shall see. Likely this special film will be seen as simply too cold and mean to embrace. And when characters are essentially symbols, smacking us over the head with their names, it’s hard to care about the arc of any of them, even if the lead is played by a talented man such as Hiddleston.
The film has a lot in common with movies like 2013’s “Snowpiercer”, or even “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” from 1989. Both of those films were also nihilistic portrayals of a society gone to seed, and the struggles of a few people to change their economic state while clinging to the last shreds of their humanity. And like those cult classics, this one too is done impeccably well at every level of its production, although it is very hard to truly enjoy any of it when the whole leaves such a bad taste in one’s mouth. Still, this movie will likely grow in reputation over the years and decades, even if it’s ignored now.
Granted, not every film made has to be a rollicking, good time. Horror films trade in death and dread constantly, but the better ones at least have a sense of entertainment to them, even if they’re dripping blood all over the place. The fun here lies within its savaging satiric take, but that won’t be everyone’s idea cup of tea. If one understands that this is a political movie, and a nasty and mean one at that, then they’ll appreciate its dark humor and be able to laugh at how “High-rise” holds up an unflattering mirror to society.
Still, did they have to barbecue that dog?