High-Rise ★★★½

I wanted to like High Rise. I like Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump. I love their last film, A Field in England (2013), a minor masterpiece of psychedelic folk-horror. I also like J.G. Ballard and quite enjoyed the source novel as a young man. I’m not even all that fond of dogs.

For a while, it works quite well. Mark Tildesley’s art direction deserves particular credit, perfectly capturing the point at which paternalistic, high-modern optimism curdled in on itself and brutalist utopias suddenly came to seem just brutal. A mordant opening sequence works its way back from scenes of blackly comic ruin and savagery to a morning "three months earlier", when the foreboding title building’s Freud-bearing residents marched across its brave new lobby and out to their gleaming automobiles like the confident and rightful masters of the world. In that moment, I was hooked.

Much like the recent Snowpiercer (2013), High Rise presents a man-made environment as a hermetic microcosm of society at large, with an emphasis on physically literalized class relations. Here, the less august and well-to-do live down below in building's shadows, while comically priggish blue bloods indulge themselves on high. As in Ballard's novel, events are set in motion when a bottle from an upper floor comes crashing onto the balcony of our protagonist, a young doctor just settling into his modishly dismal new apartment in the building’s soft middle.

As Dr. Laing, Tom Hiddleston projects a mein of slightly over-eager decency (little do we know). He seems the bright young everyman set out to find his fortune, and that’s exactly the problem. Laing does not belong in or to any particular station. Instead, he seeks. He travels within the building, getting to know both the beleaguered salt below and the wafting swells above. The shattering gift that wakes him is a champagne bottle, after all, not any old tube of plonk. It summons him upward *hint* to the floor of another troublesome, middle-dwelling drifter, Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a sharp but faintly sad young single mother.

Laing and Charlotte confound the building’s rigidly stratified social system. They cross barriers, entering even the secret, mirror-walled lift that provides access to the penthouse, hermitage of this world's reclusive architect (Jeremy Irons). When things begin to go wrong, and believe me they do, it can hardly be mere coincidence that we see the first signs of breakdown in that same magical elevator. To move, in such a tightly ordered system, is to threaten and even to destroy. Thematically, like the novel that inspired it, High Rise is rich and challenging, sharply fanged beneath a seemingly simple surface. Unfortunately, as a piece of cinematic storytelling, it's also a bit of a mess.

About halfway through, after spending a full hour patiently developing characters, building suspense, and interweaving narrative threads, the film abruptly comes unglued, leaping ahead to an extended montage of animalistic chaos in the midst of total social collapse. At that point, my investment in the proceedings evaporated never to return. I felt as if I shouldn't have bothered involving myself in the details of the story, as they clearly hadn't mattered to the filmmakers.

Following this disastrous disruption, High Rise does settle back down a bit, but the camera's narrating eye remains resolutely distant from subsequent developments, observing the ever-worsening conditions within the building only in oblique fragments. This denies the events depicted the opportunity to really matter, which seems a shame, as the performances are generally strong, and the tale told seems as though it could have been quite compelling had Wheatley and Jump only kept faith with it. Instead, the film winds up a sloppy, shaggy-dog folly, thematically overstuffed yet otherwise inert.

Even so, I wouldn't call it a failure. For all its flaws, High Rise is a smart, strange and deeply personal piece of work, charged up with images and ideas sufficient for ten ordinary movies. That's rare enough to celebrate, even if the final product isn't all it might have been.

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