The haves and the have-nots generally don’t live in the same neighborhoods, for obvious reasons, and the fascinating new thriller High-Rise offers a stark, extreme, and satirical explanation as to why this is the case. Based on the 1975 J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, Ben Wheatley‘s odd and challenging High-Rise manages to sum up the history of humanity’s class struggles in less than two hours: the wealthy people control the resources, the poor people demand fairer dispensation of those resources, conflicts arise, and people on both sides suffer — although it’s usually the poorer folks who struggle the most.
The year is 1975. The setting is a vaguely futuristic skyscraper in which the fancy families spend their days among the upper-tier penthouses while the “lower class” families live in the greasy, grungy lower sections. Our entry point is an amiable new “middle class” tenant: Robert Laing is a doctor, which means he should fit in quite well with the upper crust of his newfound vertical community — but he also seems to detest the arrogance and artifice that so many rich folks thrive on, which means he’ll probably get along better with the low-income tenants. Laing is an anomaly of sorts, and his arrival at the allegedly self-sustaining high rise community kick-starts a chain reaction of wildly self-destructive events. (And you’ve probably never seen destruction of this sort set to piano covers of old Abba songs.)
The massive apartment building becomes a relative war zone before too long, and Laing finds himself torn between the powerful but soulless lawmakers and the earnest yet volatile rule-breakers. Cocktail parties devolve into raiding parties. Arguments over a swimming pool lead to shocking violence. The lower floors become trash-choked caverns; the upper levels become miniature fiefdoms governed by egocentric windbags. Subtext-wise, none of this stuff is all that subtle, but then again neither is Ballard’s source material. It’s sort of like Animal Farm meets Lord of the Flies, if you want to get literary about it, and director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump do a remarkable job of bringing a fascinating, difficult novel to the big screen.
High-Rise starts out in traditional fashion — our protagonist enters into a rapidly devolving situation — but gradually picks up speed, trims a lot of the book’s more redundant moments, and settles into sort of an avant-garde nightmare. The characters go from relatively civilized to powerfully manic in rather short order, and the filmmakers celebrate the dry absurdity of the novel with a fluid, fever-dream visual presentation that forces a viewer to keep up and pay close attention. An intelligent novel deserves an equally intelligent adaptation, and that’s precisely what Mr. Wheatley and Ms. Jump (not to mention the fantastic cinematographer Laurie Rose) have delivered.
Tom Hiddleston is pitch-perfect as the newcomer; at first Laing, with his classy demeanor and well-tailored suits, seems to be a perfect fit for the upper-crust crowd — but he also exhibits a sort of low-key class and decency that serves him well among the “normal” tenants. There are great performances on both sides of the sky-high class struggle: Luke Evans as a documentary filmmaker who inspires all sorts of animosity among the upper crust; Elisabeth Moss as a (very) pregnant working class woman who has eyes for Dr. Laing; Jeremy Irons as the architect (and virtual overlord) of the community. There’s not a weak link to be found here: Sienna Miller, Reece Shearsmith, Sienna Guillory, and James Purefoy provide equally strong support as High-Rise picks up steam on its ascent into chaos.
It’s as if Wheatley and his collaborators realized early on that “yet another story about the rich vs. the poor” wouldn’t be all that unique a story to tell, and so they messed with the typical three-act structure, made sure to accentuate the novel’s bleak, bold sense of humor, and dabbled with a vaguely post-apocalyptic (yet firmly 1970s) setting. It’s easy to see what a simple adaptation of High-Rise would look like (it’d probably be a lot like Die Hard, actually) but we should never expect “simple” from the team that made Down Terrace, Kill List, and A Field in England. High-Rise is a weird, confrontational, and darkly fascinating novel, and this long-awaited movie version is all of those things, and more.