Feeling a need for a new start, physiologist Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into the 25th floor of a modern high-rise building. Shortly after his arrival, he’s introduced to several residents, including coquettish upstairs neighbor Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), knavish lower level denizen Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), and 40th floor penthouse occupant and architect of the tower, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). When intermittent power failures and other petty annoyances begin plaguing the building, the inhabitants’ behavior becomes more erratic, resulting in wild parties and random bouts of violence. What begins as a strata struggle marked by displays of defiance quickly devolves into a chaotic orgy of violence, where reason and civility succumb to primal urges of destructive nihilism.
Cheerful classical music and blood-soaked imagery combine for a most unusual commencement. Hitchcockian violins further add to the introduction of the building and Laing’s individual, clinical apartment, wherein notes of barbarism and cruelty foreshadow the degradation to come. But can director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump (working from the novel by J.G. Ballard) manage to separate the abstract artistry from the allegorical storytelling enough to impart their vision of a futuristic microcosm of capitalism and class warfare?
Unfortunately, the answer is an unequivocal no. The hints at devolution, loss of identity, and self-destruction early on are something of a spoiler for the otherwise tame, domestic dramas unfolding amongst unhappy people struggling to come to terms with inattentive spouses and faltering establishment amenities. The flashes of dream sequences or hallucinatory slow-motion visuals should have been enough to ease audiences into the grotesqueries soon to come, but the pacing is unbearably slow (overstuffed with nonrepresentational details) and the meanings so cryptic that it seems like hours before a point is made. And, despite surely paralleling various elements of societal evils and hierarchical ruinations, “High-Rise” never actually gets to its point with the clarity necessary to connect with its audiences. If the filmmakers were hoping to confuse, they’ve wholly achieved it.
“Like all poor people, she is obsessed with money,” exclaims the affluent woman at the top, who hasn’t been able to pay her bills. Metaphorical moments and perversely poetic dialogue are the high points for this abstruse (or obtuse) experiment in mental deterioration and nearly unintelligible interpretations of financial rifts. The disparity between the floors isn’t great enough (save for the penthouse, with its white stallion and impossible garden), the analogies aren’t obvious enough, and the motivations are shrouded in obscurity. When Laing’s guilt over a false diagnosis begins to weigh on his conscience, it’s difficult to follow precisely. And the commentary on voyeurism (most prominent through documentarian Wilder) never really reaches its stinging revelations. At its best, “High-Rise” channels the grand humor of “Delicatessen” or the irony of “Man Bites Dog.” But at its worst, it’s reminiscent of John Cheever’s hopelessly perplexing “The Swimmer” or the uncomfortable violence of “Dredd” (also set in a destabilizing tower). Here, reality – and purpose – are frustratingly elusive concepts.