Published May 20, 2016J.G. Ballard's classic 1975 novel High-Rise has been long overdue for a film adaptation — producer Jeremy Thomas famously waited three decades to get it on the screen. After multiple false starts, it finally took British art house provocateur Ben Wheatley to get the job done. Wheatley has always had a penchant for the surprising, the surreal and the pointed, so he's the perfect person to attempt to transform this heady text into a cohesive film. And he mostly pulls it off.
Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Robert Laing, a physiology scientist who's just moved into a fancy new apartment building designed by elusive architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons, good as ever). An allegory for the class system, the titular high-rise is set up like a stationary Snowpiercer, with the rich living in the top floors and the lower classes on the bottom.
A man of high social status, Laing is also a man of the people. He spends as much time hobnobbing with the building's elites more as with single mother Charlotte (an affable, mischievous Sienna Miller) and married couple Helen (Elisabeth Moss heaving around a giant pregnancy suit) and Richard (played with savage intensity by Luke Evans).
When the frustrations of the lower floors simmer to a boiling point, they decide to launch a messy, violent and unfocused revolution. The result is a whole bunch of visceral violence and piled up garbage, and the entire building falls into a state of chaos. Wheatley has done an excellent job of restraining himself here — a lesser director would've fallen prey to preachy socio-political finger wagging.
That said, his penchant for surrealism can occasionally make for a frustrating watch. Confusion about characters' motivations aside, there isn't always enough justification for the onscreen cruelty here (which includes a murdered dog, plenty of bloodied bodies and a suggested rape). Further, it's never really clear why these people don't just leave the high-rise and go live somewhere a little less, well, bat-shit insane. (Or is that a question we should be asking ourselves about capitalism, maaaan?)
If you're willing to turn off the part of your brain that requires a cohesive plot, however, you're in for a real treat. Wheatley's set design is jaw dropping, with retro-futurist interior design that'll have most viewers salivating. The cinematography is outstanding too, as Wheatley uses vintage camera tricks to bring each scene to life. Further, each member of the ensemble cast carries his or her weight well, and when the film finally does reach its conclusion, it's a fairly satisfying one.
Perhaps it's good that High-Rise is a such a mindfuck — rather than another dystopian adaptation that English teachers can show their class in junior high, Wheatley has crafted a paranoid fever dream that'll haunt you for months after the credits finally roll.