High-Rise is an Interesting Social Commentary
by Kristin Battestella
I didn't intend on writing many spoilers, but director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump's (A Field in England) 2015 feature adaption of J.G. Ballard's High-Rise is an intriguing social commentary with heaps of characters and then versus now parallels ripe for analysis and study.
Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a prestige new high-rise designed by visionary architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) – who lives in the penthouse with his detached society wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). Laing befriends the lower living and debt ridden Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss), as well as his upstairs neighbor Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) and her young son Toby (Louis Suc). Unfortunately, technological problems within the building escalate the high and low resentments, causing the floors to divide against each other in a social competition for food, necessities, and excess. The residents must fight to survive as the chaos explodes into full blown violence, escapism, and anarchy.
An Unusual framework
Ironic classical music anchors High-Rise's routine morning rush and good-natured competition on the rowing machines. Most people don't care what happens on the floors above or below them, and it's easy to mind your own business, equally ignoring the small problems such as petty theft and blocked trash chutes or more serious hidden problems like abused children. Laing's introductions provide early exposition and layered subtext, and almost every name etymology or dialogue exchange has a second meaning to match the dual daytime calm and crazy tower nights. Who is the upper man in fancy cologne who stuffs the Financial Times in the mouth of the downstairs girl assaulted in the blackout? Surely, these wild parties and deadly actions are just growing pains like all the little mechanical problems. The advanced tower conveniences provide every envious need to some but not all, precipitating the destruction while bearing a concrete witness to the lust, sloth, and who knows what else happening. Petty races for the closest parking spot become no one remembering where there car is, and less and less people come or go, preferring the chaos inside as more of the building gets trashed with nastiness in the pool, wild sex, gruesome dissections, and children singing to beware the alligator. When it's great at the top there's no need to care if it's dog eat dog at the bottom – no pun intended. The uppers have never been to the grocery store and call it hunting when they don their robes or leisure suits to shop between orgies. Who can they blame below for the anarchy? The lessers must see the superior competition, and the penthouse Joneses will commandeer all the resources necessary – you know booze, canapes, cocktail onions, and cake. The downstairs, meanwhile is divided between staying pat or taking documentary action, capturing the mayhem just as today we look at the world through a rose colored lens on our smartphones. With its futuristic made retro, ambiguous newscaster, and life imitating art parallels, High-Rise retains Ballard's prophetic warnings on media and technology distorting our lives. The visionary design of the building complex – several high-rise buildings with an open palm motif – feels like a Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God warning, with the hellish herd thinned so the worthy can create a new warped normal. Once the sequestered wicked was swept under the rug, but the particular have and have not conditions of the High-Rise let the chaos fester and bloom.
Although the book begins with Laing's post-chaos calm balcony barbecue, this framework and flashback to three months before the breakdown may be a mistake for the film. A novel needs a first page hook with a promise of anarchy enticing the reader. A millennial movie, however, just needs to tell its mayhem from A to B, and the monthly skip adds confusion or a glossed over feeling – especially since there is a montage of destruction halfway through High-Rise with hectic, almost hidden flashes or suggestions viewers may miss. It may be intentional that the audience is unaware of the passage of time as the anarchy ascends. However, when the viewer must ask how long the social bedlam takes after Laing moves in or how the overdue Helen remains pregnant a month or more later, it takes the audience out of the immersive chaos. With such taboo or polarizing angst, High-Rise can't afford to have the viewer check out, and by beginning with Laing's end, the same anticipation that keeps a reader can kill a short attention span movie audience. I don't really want to see more of the violent assaults and implied scares in High-Rise, but the sex seen isn't very raunchy or somehow held back – stoic stiff upper lip rather than full throttle. At least Toby finds an ear! No one but Laing is seen shaving or growing a beard, and nobody runs out candles and cigarettes. Nitpicking contemporary viewers are often so desensitized to onscreen horridness, violence, rape, and murder that it almost seems like not enough happens in High-Rise – or, ironically, we expect social anarchy to erupt in a confined space. Yet if we find fault with High-Rise being too obvious or tame in its commentary on humanity's ugly, then what does that say about us?
Dr. R. Laing
Like the past participle lain, Tom Hiddleston's buttoned up Doctor Laing is content lying low in his apartment detached from the outside world when not peeling the flesh from a skull or using tightly grip saws and mallets in his pathology work. His life is in boxes – said to contain “sex and paranoia” or “nothing” – and Laing likewise barricades himself in to avoid the destruction between rival floors. Laing has a bent little cigarette when he's insulted by the men at the top, but his third person calculating self won't go along with their lobotomies upon request. He's trapped in the mirrored elevator during the blackout and seems to dislike both lifts and stairs – tools to move above or below his station when he knows his place. As seen in Crimson Peak and Only Lovers Left Alive, the subtle cracking beneath the surface mask is what Hiddleston does best, and his simmer adds dimension to the otherwise neutral Laing, who never really reveals his full hand or says what he is thinking. Laing tells Louis Suc's (The White King) “Little Professor” Toby to blend in so everyone would like him, for he was always covered in mud or failure that his father wouldn't touch, but Toby questions Laing on if he killed his family, likes being the only one left, and why he didn't punch Simmons when he had the chance. Everyone trusts Laing's quietness, and he services all the women of High-Rise in some way – usually with his sexual prowess since he looks good without his clothes. Initially, Laing is concerned with sunbathing, massages, fitness, and cleanliness with repeated showering splices. He won't go in the pool, probably because he's told the children peed in it, and ash smears on his face in the same spot that is later covered with gray paint. Laing's suave seventies style parallels the building breakdown as his bell bottoms roll up, the white shirt dirties, and the choking tie is tossed. Even his hair becomes almost gray, completing his in between, non-committal uniform appearance. Laing blends in as a utilitarian part of the increasingly dirty tower, and his gray walls match the sky outside as the inside and out become one. Laing sponges his clothes in the shower and won't take them off for Helen, saying for the first time he is happy as a kept object with his new unusual family. He's where he belongs and intends to open a private practice to help others surrender as he has.
As his name suggests, the performance that invests the audience most in High-Rise is Luke Evans (Dracula Untold) as the bottom floor family man Richard Wilder. He's a likable guy with a gruff seventies action man exterior. His flirting and fooling around is understandable, too – a guy's entitled to blow off a little steam! He has bills to pay, mouths to feed, and another on the way but the down documentary filmmaker with a vision isn't content as a point and shoot it cameraman. Wilder befriends everyone regardless of floor status and insists on doing justice for the children denied at the pool by an upper floors only reservation. He won't have his children humiliated, and while others try to rise by bending to the top's ways, Wilder intends to conquer them by fighting Simmons. Wilder suspects Royal uses Laing to feed upper propaganda to the lower orders, and the two become like rival sons – one cowering and one a man of action – with their pseudo sexual dance off meant to draw out Laing's wild side. Wilder isn't a bad guy but lashes out like a cornered animal fighting back against one too many snickers on high as most defending family men would do. He begins with petty pet vengeance before valiantly deciding to document the mayhem. He dares question why the police never come and insists on finding Royal as the albatross who can resolve the building's inequalities. Unfortunately, Wilder's climb through the tower's innards becomes a desperate, dirty obsession to get to the top even after his camera is lost. He embraces all manner of subterfuge to ascend the floors, threatening people with violence for information and gaining access with rapacious violations and misogynist control. He growls on a cassette recorder, caged under the glass table and lying in wait, orchestrating his rise to man of the house on a higher floor with a beaten woman serving his canned food supper. Did Wilder always have sociopathic tendencies or did this social collapse shape the warped nurture necessary to achieve his goals?High-Rise admits that a man will do what he can and get away with it once society allows the opportunity. It's uncomfortably provocative and frighteningly accurate once Wilder realizes what he has become – he is indeed the sanest man in the building because he is fully aware of who he is and what is happening, embracing the tower catalyst with no regrets.
The Lower Floors
Sienna Miller's (Layer Cake) Charlotte is described as being one of the few residents who cares – hosting parties, reviewing tenant applicants, and sitting on most of the committees despite a modest mid-tower apartment and no mention of any wealth or position beyond being Toby's mother. Charlotte knows everything about the building, admitting there is a social hierarchy already in place whether Royal likes it or not, and he refers to her as the number 374. But she is on the 26th floor above Laing, who's room is styled as 2505? She approved Laing's “Byronic” application, so she knows his apartment isn't empty as she claims, and the intercut editing of her first party parallels Charlotte's what you don't see illusion. She leads Laing to the balcony, but we only see Toby spying and Wilder drunk under the glass table. She offers to find the tower brothel for Laing but selfishly talks about herself when they are intimate – and Royal knows about their relationship. Charlotte knows about Laing's sister, admits their sex is only about her and doesn't let him finish, and makes “Robert” agree that they must all do things they don't like. Charlotte watches with Talbot like spectators, discussing whether they should interfere with what is happening or not. The trick, you see is never letting one really know her, but the ambitious Wilder figures out her charlatan game. How does her apartment stay okay and supplied with her and Toby unharmed? The women in High-Rise are all somewhat stereotypical slut, mother, or shrew roles, yet each are both used at those stations and rise above them with consequences along the way.
At first Elizabeth Moss' (Mad Men) environmentalist mother Helen does anything to protect her children despite being tired of her family's bleak situation. She has a plant and one small window, but looks the other way for her husband by saying he's lost his documentary focus. She takes Laing under her wing and has a prophetic interested in recycling, but keeps her children home from school so she won't be unhappy and lonely. She loves her husband but doesn't trust Wilder, and Helen insists everything would be better if they could move to a sunny, higher floor. She barters her children's safety with her wedding ring before going upward. Helen finds solace with Laing before her motherhood gains her access to the top – both as a shunned maid and a revered sign of building renewal with her full moon delivery. Enzo Cilenti (Game of Thrones) as the psychiatrist Talbot isn't a parent, but tosses ice cream scoops over the tower's edge to explain gravity to the kids. He thinks the fascists above don't realize the building isn't as homogeneous as they think – especially when you deny people their basic necessities. Talbot says Laing is obviously hiding in plain sight, but people don't choose when they cross the line, it just silently happens. He documents with Wilder but is caught in the grocery, bound, gagged, and left in the uppers trash amid British versus French parallels and xenophobic insults. Reece Shearsmith's (The League of Gentlemen) orthodontist Steele – who does in fact, steal – is also adamant he isn't homosexual. However, he insists women would help the planet by keeping their legs crossed, and several quick moments suggest he's harming the Wilders' daughter. Steele becomes obsessed with people's trash and taking their teeth, and almost steals Helen herself since people are bartering wives for food. Fortunately, Laing says he isn't that hungry, and Steele respects his word, because, after all they are equals on the same floor.
The Architect and Co.
Royal is indeed the lord at the top – Jeremy Irons' (Reversal of Fortune) idea man who conceived and birthed the design but didn't lift a finger for the construction. Royal calls himself the tower's midwife and the architect of his own accident, vowing to see the teething building through after an on-site injury has left him limping and in constant pain with exercise his only relief. He plays squash with Laing, teasing him about Charlotte in a father and son sort of contest – the dressed in white Royal wears a towel around his neck, like a coach nursing this project of social change, but he dislikes the way people have retreated to their rooms with no escape from themselves. He descends in his mirrored elevator, finding his lost black goat in a hellish domain where he unknowingly bumps into the bloodied and red faced devil Wilder. Royal bargains with the officials knocking on the door to look the other way but hits and threatens with his cane like an angry father with a switch. He still could be the god from above brought to the streets putting man right, but Royal unfortunately succumbs to the committee at the top. He must reminds those above they are his guests and he will make the decisions, but they just roll their eyes at dad saying Laing can't be tossed off the roof because he owns him a game of squash. Royal almost comes to admire Laing's simple desire to be left alone, and over their candlelit dinner eating horse, he reiterates how he will not leave his nest. Royal realizes he didn't leave an element out of his crucible for change but let too many factors in the high-rise – a failure that has nonetheless brought about an escape to a new, twisted life.
Keeley Hawes (Mi-5) dresses out of the past as Royal's queenly wife Ann, isolated in her museum-like penthouse complete with a rooftop garden, goat, and horse. She doesn't actually ride, never gets her hands dirty, and is terrible to the maid she won't pay. Ann thinks Laing is there to fix a button for her to get what she needs, as if man has not other purpose, and she insults him in French, suspecting Royal invited Laing to her party as a silly social experiment. Ann switches to a saintly white hooded robe and isn't seen to have sex with anyone – Royal hitting her is the first time he has touched her in months, and the building is like their desperate to keep the dysfunctional marriage child growing worse alongside Helen's natural pregnancy. Ann packs to leave for her rich parents and slaps Royal when he asks if she is still enjoying her party, but Laing insults rather than indulges Sienna Guillory's (Fortitude) actress Jane Sheridan. Instead, she romps with the more dangerous Wilder during the blackout, and her pampered dog pays for it in the pool fight. Wilder tells her to “share and share alike” but she cries while looking at herself in the mirror. Jane bashes a man with red liquid in the supermarket and screams misogynist before drinking from the punch bowl in bed with her lookalike Ann. Did the building chaos bring out the actress's latent lady truths? We don't actually see her have sex with Wilder, and later Jane asks which bastard is going to have anal sex with her. Although, she may end up with the horse while the men have a symbolic but classical music sophisticated dance off instead. In a subsequent, awkward, and open to interpretation scene, Royal has sex with her as Ann stands nearby smoking and holding Jane's hand. Is this their idea of a threesome or a boring obligation for the women who prefer each other? Jane asks if anyone has made an complaint to the high-rise's owners, but Ann tells her they are the owners. She answers happily when asked where all the menfolk have gone, glad to have their brutishness out at the top, but what do the women do alone inside while the men are out killing the horse? Hmm...
Comedian Dan Renton Skinner's Simmons is Royal's strong arm henchman with sarcasm under his breath and a sense of entitlement that keeps him at the top. He wears all black to Royal's all white, putting his feet up and asking Royal who to blame for what went wrong. Despite hearing Royal invite Laing to Ann's party, Simmons tosses Laing out as a cheap bastard exceeding his station. Simmons leads food raids and receives sexual services while telling Royal he doesn't work for him, but the building, as if its an entity itself to those reaping the rewards of its anarchy. Likewise, James Purefoy (The Following) as cold hands gynecologist John Pangbourne is repulsed by the street level antics, walking passed the families arguing with the janitor over food and electricity and telling Royal he's ready to colonize the sky by clearing out the lower floors for a golf course. Pangbourne eventually proves useful delivering Helen's baby, but he beats Wilder, shoving toilet paper in his mouth. He thinks those wearing the leisure suits still control the unspoken rules of the high-rise, and he's willing to humor an exchange with Laing if he will help get rid of Wilder – dividing the ruffians in the middle so the top can prevail and reclaim the building. He mocks Royal as symbolically still holding the key to the building and tries to send him below to get rid of him, for the top isn't as united as they thought – it just takes longer for their ruthless to show once the food runs out and the women grow tired of the men's mistakes.
A Suave Retro Study
I like the Portishead cover of ABBA's “SOS”. It connects today’s bitter bleak with the onscreen breakdown as good film music should. However, I really love the pop gone classical “SOS” version – an ironically pleasant, upbeat strings rendition signaling the imminent social divides amid decadent parties and Marie Antoinette costumes. Dark humor, kaleidoscope designs, visual parallels, and exterior CG imagery accent High-Rise as the initially tall and mighty beacon in the sunny sky grows overcast with the clouds and darkness of its proverbial downfall – the building's shadow looms over the landscape and turns upside down in the perspective of the dead below it. Retro technology, record players, old phones, boob tubes, vintage sports equipment, build it yourself radios, and classy cars invoke the past along with ye olde supermarket styles and platform shoes. High-Rise is obviously seventies set, but it doesn’t say it with any fixed year given. Specifically dating it would trap the film rather than embrace the doubly fun retro futuristic of setting Ballard's predictions in the past. Although an onscreen countdown may have fixed the time frame issues – a character clinging to checking off the essential days or old school digital numbers that switch to handwritten or scribbled counts before disappearing once the chaos goes beyond calendar care. I also wish there had been more period music as a recognizable sign of the then heady excess we recall, if only as an excuse for some ironic Bee Gees!
Though not for everyone, High-Rise is not A Clockwork Orange or as shocking as it wants to be. The film's confusing frame and innate sense of British stoicism can create a numb viewing despite sexual assault and other extremes onscreen. We are also more like Laing than we care to admit – too accustomed to omnipresent sex and violence and sitting back while anarchy sorts itself. David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future is a much more disturbing parable, and the potential comparison to Cronenberg’s Shivers was one of the first things that intrigued me about High-Rise. I followed the entire press tour waiting for someone to ask Ben Wheatley about the similarities between Ballard and Cronenberg’s works, but there was only one article with the director's thoughts on the two. It's an older, inferior production, but Shivers embraces the terrible taboos from which High-Rise may shy, and it would be fascinating to compare these two side by side. Reviewing High-Rise took multiple watches, for I had to keep pausing while I typed all my thoughts. This isn't an entertaining or happy viewing experience and High-Rise at times wears its social commentary on its sleeve. However, this remains an intense little “this is why we can't have nice things” picture for a book versus film study, mature audiences, fans of cast and crew, or dystopian viewers.