Posted on May 11, 2016

Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise: Pretty but Empty

Dawn Keetley

2016   |   R  |   UK   | Ben Wheatley |   119 min

Synopsis: Although Tom Hiddleston is brilliant as its shiny, empty protagonist, High-Rise is tedious, pretentious and, well, empty. Grade: C-

I am an avid fan of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) and so was eagerly awaiting his latest film, High-Rise, which is based on J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name. I was sorely disappointed: High-Rise is a pretentious and pointless film. It somehow manages to be heavy-handed in its attempted allegory and empty of any actual meaning. It was boring; I hated every single character; and I found myself asking every few minutes why I was still watching.

High-Rise begins at the end, with its bloodied protagonist, Dr. Robert Laing (played very effectively by the talented Tom Hiddleston), roasting a dog on top of a high-rise apartment building in some faceless urban landscape. The film then backtracks to the months of chaos and violence that ravaged the apartment block—spurious class conflict enflamed by the perpetual confinement of the high-rise. Indeed, the best part of the film may be the towering figure of the building itself, which is all-encompassing: we only ever see fleeting and partial glimpses of the world beyond, and that exterior landscape only ever appears in the frame with the high-rise (one part of the film I did love, actually).

1. HighRise, parking lot

The film is obviously saying something about both human nature (=violent) and about class structure (=violence).

As in Ballard’s novel, tensions in the high-rise erupt around class divisions that are mapped onto the spatial organization of the building, as the lower-classes (who live on the lower floors) start agitating against those on the middle floors (the professionals) and those at the top (the wealthy, leisured elite). Violence ensues as the lower classes revolt against such important things as being barred from the swimming pool for a while. They’re led by the only vaguely interesting character, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), who ventriloquizes the language of class oppression but seems much more motivated by resentment and in asserting himself by brutalizing women. The upper-classes launch a counter-attack against the lower-floor insurgency, concocting a plan to turn the lower-classes against each other and then colonize the entire building. Everyone seems completely disengaged from what’s going on.

As well as the obvious point about the inevitability of class warfare (and about how power rather than any ideal of justice often drives such warfare), there is also a heavy-handed message about how humans are all, under the mask, violent brutes. There’s a scene in which Laing, who’s a physician, literally peels the face off of a corpse: as he does so, he intones that the “facial mask slips easily off the skull”—an obvious reference to how, in the allegorical high-rise of human society, the mask of civility is always slipping.

2. HighRise, mask

But I keep coming back to the fact that there’s no substance to any of the mayhem that breaks out in High-Rise. The film inevitably (to its own detriment) invokes William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), which is similarly about formerly “civilized” humans descending into tribal warfare. And while Golding’s deservedly classic novel featured children, it spoke profoundly to human nature: the soul of humanity was at stake as the boys turned on each other in a vicious game of survival. In High-Rise, on the other hand, the rioters are all technically adults, but they seem like narcissistic children, stuck in a protracted adolescence and looking for the next good party. There is nothing at stake except who gets to swim in the swimming pool.

Of course, maybe that’s the point. That there’s nothing at stake. The name of the film’s empty protagonist, Dr. Robert Laing, is an obvious reference to psychiatrist R. D. Laing, who famously argued against the notion of mental disease as biological: he stressed the importance of social situation and place in the creation of the “insane” (and thus also the sane) self. So perhaps the most interesting character in High-Rise is indeed the building itself—its sterility, its blandness, its inevitable spatial divide into lower, middle, and upper. All of which exerts a profoundly determining force on its residents.

Maybe this is why the film feels much emptier to me than The Lord of the Flies. With all its gestures to base human brutality, High-Rise in fact says we’re nothing at bottom. The violence of the film feels always like an utter sham (unlike The Lord of the Flies). In High-Rise, the characters become their surroundings—and in the modern era our surroundings are often gleaming, glittering high-rises that create people with gleaming glittering surfaces. Tom Hiddleston is brilliant as the shiny, empty man who fits perfectly into this environment, who thrives in it. He reflects what’s around, but there’s nothing under the mask.

3. HighRise, Laing in elevator

The divisions created in and by the high-rise are equally superficial and empty: what does it really matter if you live on the bottom or the top floors? So while the film is a powerful articulation of how place shapes us, I didn’t care.

I couldn’t help comparing High-Rise to another horror film that features a high- rise, George A, Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005). While I have some problems with Land (not least, it’s never very scary), what it says about humanity and about class—especially as centered on Dennis Hopper’s character, Paul Kaufman, and the luxurious and exclusive condo, Fiddler’s Green, is much more interesting than anything the more banal High-Rise has to say.

4. Land, Fiddlers Green

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