Fantastic Fest 2015 Review – High-Rise

Fantastic Fest 2015 Review –
High-Rise : Tom Hiddleston Goes to New Heights
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United Kingdom, 2016
North American Premiere, 118 min
Director: Ben Wheatley

Artful commentary on social structures and class divides are always messy. Oftentimes they end up as lame amalgamations of what the privileged folks think they look like to the less privileged, gnashing their teeth with witty banter and expensive clothes. But High-Rise, the new Ben Wheatley film, is adapted from the cult novel of the same name by legendary author, J.G. Ballard. If you’re not familiar with his work (he wrote the novel Crash), the Ballard influence is in so many director’s works. He’s famous for taking a machete to modern society and all those therein, shredding it all to bits with grace and gore. The source material of High-Rise, needless to say, is second to none.

The film opens with Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a lonely, mild mannered doctor with a hole in his heart. His sister has just died, his life is empty, his career dull and unfulfilling. He’s just moved into a luxury, all-inclusive high rise that promises fulfillment around every corner. The building itself is filled with similar, though not so mild mannered people of varying classes, with the most well-to-do living nearest the top. Each of them carry their own brand of ennui, all of them aching from yearning or loss. The drab, concrete high rise promises a rich life of community to those who need it most, but only seems further reflective of the dulled-by-life inhabitants that occupy it.

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The building is lorded over by its architect, played by the always amazing Jeremy Irons, who lives in the penthouse like the Almighty himself. Swathed in white and surrounded by a lush rooftop sanctuary of his own making, he fiddles with the lives of the people in the building through his dismissal of the power outages and water shut offs affecting the lower floors, occupied by the poorest in the high rise.

As the story progresses, social breakdown and chaos unfolds. The revolution results from a rather anarchistic children’s birthday party, led by the often show stealing documentarian and womanizer, Richard Wilder, played by Luke Evans. It all then very quickly devolves into canine murder, suicide, decadent debauchery and orgies–and that’s just the beginning. As the occupants’ sanity begins to crumble, they break off into tribes, giving into to murderous rage and rape, and of course, booze. Remnants of David Cronenberg‘s Shivers came to mind, not surprisingly.

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I didn’t know much about this movie going in, and every character introduction gave me a certain bit of happiness. Sienna Miller expertly plays a floozy, booze swilling neighbor; James Purefoy is an astute businessman asshole; and Elisabeth Moss once again goes for the common gal gone to hell as a lower floor denizen and pregnant wife of the woman-crazed Wilder.

While the movie is far from a masterpiece, it is most certainly a complex and entertaining piece of cinema. Given that I wasn’t much of a fan of director Wheatley’s previous outing, Sightseers, and really don’t care for his love of cinematic dog murders, I think he’s slowly coming into his own. I now have A Field in England at the top of my must-see list. High-Rise has a level of sophistication, something cool and progressive that makes you sort of fall in love with it all. That’s partially due in part to the cast (Tom Hiddleston is just fucking cool), but the construction is fairly excellent, and the direction is quiet and intimate at just the right spots.

Speaking of cool, Wheatley somehow got Portishead to record a cover of ABBA’s S.O.S. Knowing how difficult the members of Portishead can be–they’ve been my favorite band since their 1994 debut–this may have taken a moment of convincing on his part. Though through the miracle of Twitter, Wheatley explains in a Hollywood Reporter interview it might’ve been easier than I think. Note: I need this song now.

I’m going to go ahead and say that High-Rise is an important piece of indie cinema simply because this is where director Wheatley, and actors Hiddleston and Evans’s careers take a turn. We’re watching the future purveyors of thought-provoking indie cinema come alive before our eyes, and I couldn’t be more excited.