High-Rise ★★★½

For my screening of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise I sat next to a group of elderly women. I had to raise an eyebrow, even if privately. Had they seen Wheatley’s other films? Did they know how truly weird, alienating and subversive his films are? Did they know what they were getting into? I didn’t ask, so I didn’t know. But about halfway through, one of them whispered, “Do you want to leave?” And they did, just at the point when one character commits suicide, his body gracefully crashing onto the hood of a car in slow motion. What a perfect moment to walk out on, I thought. Just when Wheatley is starting to get revved up. Maybe, though, it was a good thing they left when they did. The last few acts surely would have tortured them.

I speak as though High-Rise is a disaster—as though I commiserate with those women, and would’ve walked out after them if I wasn’t so cheap (hey, the ticket cost me $18, cut me some slack!). But no, I don’t think that. I think High-Rise, while very much flawed, is one of those films that is too refreshingly gutsy to be called disastrous. Being based on a J.G. Ballard novel, it has to be gutsy; Ballard, if he were still living, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Like Wheatley, Ballard enjoyed going against the grain, writing bizarre and detached novels with strange, mystifying plots. He challenged readers who expected a neat and tidy order; his métier was in anticipating the chaos and disorientation of the future. And here we have a film that, though set in the 1970s, feels exactly like something prescient and immediate. It shows how the social order can collapse at the drop of a hat; how human nature shows its ugliness when left to anarchic forces. Have we seen similar themes before? Of course. This has been a preoccupation with writers and filmmakers since time immemorial. This is another take with its own distinct flavours and fancies, and it’s a take that has merit… as long as you put your trust in Ben Wheatley.

For some, it’s impossible. Wheatley just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I completely understand. I’m sure some people thought Kubrick insufferable back in his heyday, especially with something like A Clockwork Orange. But although Wheatley’s style of filmmaking is the very opposite of “safe,” I find it utterly captivating nonetheless. His boldness and panache are in full swing here, capturing the diseased decadence and brutalism of the titular high-rise building with a glossy ghoulishness that is very much in tune with the story. It’s a bona fide nightmare that becomes darker and darker as it goes along, and yes, sometimes that makes it difficult to stomach, but how else could this story have been adapted? In my view, Wheatley pulls all the right punches here, and in doing so the film becomes his most aesthetically accomplished one to date. You have to see it in all of its sumptuous chilliness to understand what I mean, for words are hardly sufficient to capture his unique vision.

Where the film falters is in the script, which is perhaps too faithful to its source. There are several moments where the film lags quite badly, almost wandering in aimlessness as scene after scene comes and goes, and that’s when the long running time is felt. Compared to Wheatley’s other films, which are lean and to-the-point, this one will probably make you fidget impatiently in your seat a few times. As well, there are a few things regarding the story’s progression that get lost in translation, particularly the moment when the high-rise descends into its shockingly filthy madness. It simply occurs without explanation, and maybe for some viewers (especially those who don’t know the book), that will come across as too confusing above all the other confusing things that occur.

Still, the zest and zeal involved in bringing Ballard’s vision to life make High-Rise a worthy entry in Wheatley’s growing filmography. It will certainly have its fair share of detractors when it’s released, and that is to be expected. Wheatley will always be a destabilizing force in the film world. He will always force us to contend with what is unnatural, unexpected and unknowable. And I’m perfectly fine with that, because we need more directors like him out there. Even if he doesn’t churn out masterpieces on a constant basis, at least he’s showing us the worlds that are out of our comfort zones—worlds that we’d rather not enter, but enter anyway because we have no choice. So thank you, Mr. Wheatley. Keep doing what you do. I look forward to being discomfited the next time, and the next time, and the next, just as I enjoyed being discomfited by the beautiful evils of High-Rise.

Block or Report