Mark Reviews Movies

High-Rise

HIGH-RISE

1 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ben Wheatley

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 5/13/16 (limited)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 12, 2016

The 40-story apartment building of High-Rise is an allegorical hell of strict social and economic castes. The movie ends with a section of a speech about free-wheeling capitalism by Margaret Thatcher, in case anyone in the audience somehow hasn't picked up on the point by then. At least the overtness of the closing moment lets us know that the movie knows what it's trying to do. In a way, it's almost impressive—how the movie swings around its allegory like one of those big cartoon mallets yet fails to hit any of its barn-wall-sized targets. If it were blindfolded, we could understand, but, no, the movie is clear-eyed. It's simply uncoordinated.

The highlight of the movie is its setting. It's a towering, concrete edifice that rises straight toward the sky before the upper floors become staggered like bleacher seats. Around it are three other such buildings under construction—the complex forming the fingers of a hand in which the palm is a large, confounding parking lot.

Director Ben Wheatley is clearly enamored with the design. Even though the majority of the movie takes place inside the building, he still ensures that there are an array of establishing shots of the structure at different times of day, with assorted camera movements, and from a variety of angles—looking straight down from the sky or up from the parking lot or wide shots of its corners.

The elements of the building that are more important for the actual story and its thematic implications are less clear. The story follows Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a new resident in the building. He's a doctor of the brain, and given his profession and social status, he is on the 25th floor of the building—about halfway up between the lower classes and the penthouse, if one excludes the lobby and the floors housing amenities like a gym and squash courts. The building has everything anyone would need, including a market, and that's good, because Laing and a few other lower-echelon residents have a difficult time finding their cars in the lot. The richer folks are relentless in their pursuit of the closest spots.

We meet other folks as the insulated world of the building is vaguely established. Laing's upstairs neighbor is Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a consummate party-thrower. On a lower floor is an unhappily married couple: Wilder (Luke Evans) is a struggling documentary filmmaker who works in television to pay the bills, and Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is raising two kids while she's pregnant with a third. In the penthouse is the building's architect Royal (Jeremy Irons), whose wife (Keeley Hawes) dawdles around the vast garden terrace dressed like Little Bo Peep. Royal is convinced his structure is a signpost for the future.

Other faces appear to slightly flesh out the social dynamics of the place. People are loyal to their floors. Lower-floor tenants visiting upper floors is frowned upon. The parties, which always seem to be going somewhere, grow more extravagant as one rises. Everyone pays the same for utilities—a point of contention for every class, since the electricity keeps failing. As for Laing, his sister has died recently, making him the last of his family. He's also more comfortable with the people beneath him.

Inevitably, things go wrong. There's a rebellion at the pool. The lower floors become resentful while the residents above start to restrict the "necessities," such as champagne and cake. The power fails completely, and the whole system begins to rot from within—just like the perishables in the building's market.

Yes, it's all that obvious, but even so, it still feels as if there are vital pieces missing from Amy Jump's screenplay (adapted from J.G. Ballard's novel). There's a negligible sense of momentum or progression through the movie. Almost immediately after the introductory beats have concluded (It takes a while for the screenplay to establish as little as it does), chaos erupts. The lower floors turn into destitute areas of violent crime, and the upper floors become an unceasing bacchanal (There are suggestions of an ancillary group that simply wants to stay out of it and survive, but like everything else here, that possible optimism is underdeveloped).

Wheatley is mostly concerned with the movie's aesthetics, which are, at times, striking—especially the movie's 1970s pastiche—and, at others, irritating—the stylistic flourishes that exist for their own sake (a dreamed dance with flight attendants, for example) and the transparent attempts to shock (most obviously, a face-peeling "gag" at Laing's work that happens twice). The problem is the inattention to building this world beyond its appearance. High-Rise is so convinced of the merits of its thesis that the movie forgets to argue it.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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