Thursday, March 31, 2016
How often have you come across this staple of lazy film criticism: “the city/vehicle/otherwise-inanimate-object [delete as applicable] is a character in its own right”?
Far too often, right? And it constitutes really bad reviewing, right?
Good. Glad we got that out of the way. In Ben Wheatley’s ‘High-Rise’, adapted by Amy Jump from J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel, the apartment block is a character in its own right.
‘High-Rise’ is a masterpiece of set design with a punctured bile duct rather than a beating heart driving the two-hour act of aesthetic implosion that constitutes its narrative. Early scenes have Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) prowling the lobby while his boxed-up possessions are crated in. Laing rocks a conservative suit and a grey tie that seem utterly in tune with the soulless brutalism of the high-rise block. The camera prowls just as elegantly, as if DoP Laurie Rose were out to redefine the concept of architecture porn. Already, though, imperfections lurk behind the high-rise’s buttoned-down façade: a single bleb of paint spoiling an otherwise perfectly glossed wall; a couple of angles out of true; a touch of rust on the hob in Laing’s minimalist kitchen. By the halfway point, the mask has slipped entirely and the societal ugliness inherent in the level-based class system has manifested as corridors full of rubbish bags, garbage chutes clogged with filth, lights and elevators failing, smashed glass, piles of rubble, public copulation and acts of what Alex the Droog would refer to as “the old ultraviolence”. The poster for ‘High-Rise’ explicitly homages ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and there’s more than a hint of Kubrick at his most coldly cynical in Wheatley’s mise en scene (not to mention some deliberate nods towards the Starliner Tower in David Cronenberg’s ‘Shivers’).
Or to put it another way, ‘High-Rise’ starts as architecture porn only to veer off suddenly and shockingly into the realms of architecture snuff. Wheatley keeps things slow-burn for the first third, assiduously mapping out the power structure and introducing Laing to a roster of oddball residents, from belligerent TV documentary-maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) – lower level – to the flirtatious and socially mobile Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and her nerdy polymath son Toby (Louis Suc) – mid level – all the way up to the penthouse suite and the building’s architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his brittle trophy wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). The metaphor for British society is obvious from the outset and Wheatley adds a good 20 or 30 minutes to the running time in hammering the point, sometimes in wincingly laborious fashion. His talent for visual storytelling is downright precocious, so it’s a shame that the pace is slowed and the dark drama dissipated by a cluster of scenes in which characters sit around and spout thuddingly literal dialogue. 90 minutes was all ‘High-Rise’ needed to be.
Having said that, the film gets more right than it does wrong. The period detail and evocation of the 1970s is spot on. Clint Mansell’s score is a thing of beauty and I’ll be adding the soundtrack to my collection ASAP. The cast are very good, with Hiddleston on excellent form, Miller giving a performance that’s worlds beyond the set-dressing she’s usually called on provide, Hawes taking material that could have been clichéd and turning Ann into a nuanced and almost tragic character, and Evans – who I liked in ‘No One Lives’ and thought was dreadful in ‘The Raven’ – snatching the Man of the Match award with a swaggering, visceral turn that put me in mind of Oliver Reed at his fiery best. Jump – for all that her script drifts intermittently into wordiness – "gets" Ballard in a way no-one has apart from Cronenberg with ‘Crash’.
Wheatley – as you’d expect of the man who directed the genuinely disturbing ‘Kill List’ and the genuinely hallucinatory ‘A Field in England’ – isn’t afraid to go full on in depicting the total breakdown of social order. Minor unfairnesses, verbal standoffs and a laddish invasion of a posh soiree so the children of the tower block can have a pool party soon escalate into orgiastic destruction and rampant self-interest. For all that Wilder has a poster of Che Guevara in his apartment, you can’t even call it class warfare. The only solidarity seems to be among the women, either the blue-bloods who rally around Ann or the much put-upon wives with whom Helen socialises. Charlotte, meanwhile, occupies the middle ground in every sense of the expression and the truth about her loyalties and her son’s parentage don’t emerge until late in the game.
If there are agents for the building’s sudden collapse into chaos, they are Royal’s thuggish aide/bouncer Simmons (Dan Renton Skinner) – whose repeated line “you won’t be needing that” becomes increasingly prescient, – and the reactionary Wilder, who sees the high-rise’s hierarchy as documentary gold for his next project. Laing, meanwhile, drifts through the film as often little more than an observer. For a while he seems like the untainted resident whose moral rectitude might be the yardstick for the audience’s response to the ever-more frenzied onscreen acts. Or maybe not: with blank indifference, he nudges an oikish colleague towards an act of suicide; parlays with Royal to the point of toadying; and goes native as completely as anyone else. The difference is that while Wilder or Simmons’s enthrallment to the building triggers machismo impulses, Laing’s response is placid, almost zen-like. In the midst of the basest displays of (in)human behaviour, Laing begins to feel at home. It says something that while everyone else is happily doling out beatings, torching vehicles in the car park or engaging in joyless group sex, the only real altercation Laing has is with someone who tries to steal from him a tin of grey paint.
The film is ultimately about what society tries to make of us, what we want to make of ourselves, the psychological impulses that drive us (particularly the self-destructive ones that usually end up in the driving seat) and the dangers that occur when mindscape and landscape overlap. The nastiest concept the film serves up – and it’s perhaps the only theme that isn’t bludgeoned by the script into literalism – is that fact that any of the residents could leave at any time. They’re not trapped in or by the building; they just need it. The building is the necessary framework wherein their trappings can be shed. All, ironically, except Laing’s. He clings onto that suit and grey tie till the end.