Last Saturday, somewhat spontaneously, I went to see High Rise, the newest film by Ben Wheatley. I’d previously seen Sightseers and A Field in England and enjoyed them both. The later wasn’t wholly successful, but it felt very different to any other film I’d seen before.
High Rise looks like his most conventional film yet, given its slick advertising and Hollywood stars like Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller. However, it manages to be much more shocking and unconventional.
After the first act, things start to go very bad indeed. What is breathtaking about the film is just how quickly it all disintegrates. Through a series of rapid montages, the normal functioning society within the building gets completely overthrown. Of course, this is very much J. G. Ballard’s modus operandi. I haven’t read High Rise, but throughout his other works of fiction, society is always a hair’s breadth away from disaster. When things collapse, there are multiple stories that are only glimpsed in the background, or briefly in montages. Mel compared the orgy of violence to a Bacchanalia, which I think is apt, as the beatings and murders become a cleansing ritual towards the end.
With the high levels of the building looking down on the lower levels, and a designer called Royal, it’s clearly allegorical for the British class system. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that despite the obvious allegory is somehow resists easy interpretation. From my socialist viewpoint, it’s a powerful argument against libertarianism. Without rules, society inevitable descends into chaos, with the rich fucking everything up because they believe themselves to be privileged and in this film, literally above the law. However, none of the characters are saints and most of them are downright nasty, so you could easily make an argument from the right side of the spectrum.
Even our protagonist, Tom Hiddleston as Doctor Laing, is detached and aloof, caring only about the paint colour of his wall and taking little notice of the violence. He is perfectly suited to the building, not really connecting with anyone and living a happy life despite the ruin around him. I think this is where is most disconnects from the traditional Hollywood model. Instead of our guide through the insanity, Dr Laing becomes the worst victim of it. Our protagonist is deeply unlikable and that is by design.
It’s an interesting film dealing with ideas about class, wealth and society, but possibly not for everyone. The extreme violence, although often implied instead of shown, is relentless and the characters and situation are deeply unpleasant. But how rare to see a film that is not afraid to go to those extremes.