HIGH RISE directed by Ben Wheatley (UK, 2015)

high_rise_2014_film_posterIf this movie had met with universal critical acclaim or had achieved commercial success it would almost certainly have denoted its failure in artistic terms. Fortunately, therefore, it polarized the press and bombed at the box office.

J.G. Ballard’s novel (published in 1975) was meant as a morbid, provocative slice of entertainment designed to leave readers absorbed but seriously spooked. It begins arrestingly: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Doctor Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months”.

This big screen adaptation has a similarly jarring impact since, in Ben Wheatley, we have a director whose mindset is every bit as warped as the polite but misanthropic English writer.

I’d seen an earlier film of Wheatley’s, Sightseers, which I hated for its gut churning splatter scenes which turn a Mike Leigh style social satire into a horror freak show. High Rise is a better fit because the excess is in tune with the anarchic content. Wheatley makes no concessions for a mainstream audience so the brutal scenes of sex and violence are just as unsettling as they are in the book.

The story and themes are uniquely British; exposing the nation’s unhealthily rigid obsession with class. Transposed to America, the metaphor would only work if the social divisions depicted were presented in terms of race.

The characters are driven by sex, power and paranoia so this is certainly not intended to paint a pretty or reassuring picture of humankind. The tale of mania, narcissism and power failure is repulsive and disturbing in all the right ways.

The tower block is contrived to signify a disintegrating society in microcosm. You know your place in society by which floor level you live on; social climbers inhabit the upper floors while the plebs and ‘ordinary’ families are confined to the lower levels.

Tom Hiddleston is perfectly cast as the “self contained, professionally detached” Doctor Laing on floor 25 (out of 40) while Jeremy Irons relishes the role of the batty architect in the lavish top floor penthouse.

“Built not for man, but for man’s absence” is the title of one of the tracks from the disarmingly breezy soundtrack by Clint Mansell. The use of Krautrock, Portishead’s radical makeover of Abba’s S.O.S. and The Fall’s ‘Industrial Estate’ further help the establish the right mood.

This is a political satire which doesn’t set its sights on any single ideology. “Healthy competition is the basis for a modern thriving economy” is the Thatcherite view espoused by one of the upper class tenants; an opinion rejected in no uncertain terms by the lower orders.

In the modern age only head in the sand readers or viewers would be duped into believing in a utopian future. High Rise is a prime example of the kind of dystopian fiction which represents our present and future. It is part a genre that does not seek to provide answers; serving instead to present worst case scenarios and leave the audience to draw their own conclusions.

If High Rise has any optimistic message (which is doubtful), it is that things need to fall apart or be destroyed before any genuine progress is possible.