Ben Wheatley’s High–Rise is less a movie about plot than its theme. Based on a 1975 novel by J.G. Ballard, this parable about classism uses the title structure in dark and devious ways to show that its inhabitants are not best left to their own devices. Set in the year that the source material was penned, we can practically detect the stale cigarette smoke odor and lord knows what else in the fibers of its shag carpeting. However, the subject matter is timeless and familiar.
The newest tenant of the London 40 story building where we spend the bulk of our time is Dr. Robert Laird (Tom Hiddleston). He moves to this property built by famed architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives on the rooftop penthouse with bodyguards, an entitled wife, lush gardens, and a white horse. The decadence of the property dilutes with each floor. If you’re up high, there’s costumed parties where the doctor is out-of-place. The lower dwellings are crowded and dirty with parties that are just as lively, if not wilder (it is the seventies after all). Our lead character is in the middle range – 25th floor to be precise. Dr. Laird becomes acquainted with both sides. He strikes up a fling with a single mom (Sienna Miller) right above him. Below him, he befriends the pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss) of the unhinged Richard (Luke Evans), who begins to document the increasingly more unhinged happenings at the property.
Royal’s creation is built with indoor pools, gyms, and a supermarket. There’s little reason for the tenants to venture elsewhere and even the good doctor finds reasons not to go to work. The mix of all societal types together descends into violence, squalor, orgiastic violence, and orgiastic squalor. It’s not pretty to look at most of the time and yet it’s often hard to look away. Some of that credit belongs to a director in Wheatley who’s clearly a talent and some impressive cinematography and art direction. The cast is first rate as well, with Hiddleston leading the way in another role in which he shows some morality mixed with the opposite.
The problem with High–Rise is that once you get the message of what it’s trying to say (it’s hard to miss), it mostly just repeats itself. The images are often both beautiful and hideous to behold. I would be lying if I said I felt it equals a wholly satisfying experience. The irony is that this may be the exact type of picture where the “higher floor” cinephile types may exaggeratingly extol its virtues. The “lower floor” moviegoing types (those who just wish to have an entertaining time) may wish they were anywhere else but this building. The “middle floor” types may find themselves, well, in the middle. My apartment may have been on the 25th floor, too.
**1/2 (out of four)