The concept of big-budget, strange independent cinema is a concept that went out with the global financial crisis, something that makes the existence of Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, Kill-List)’s High-Rise nothing sort of a miracle. It’s a sense of daring excitement that permeates the whole film, a handsomely designed and hilarious mindfuck that will make one either rise from their seat either from excitement or en route to the door.
After all, it makes its statement of gory, adrenaline-fuelled intent early. By the end of the opening minute, the cooly detached Doctor Laing (Tom Hiddleston, using his introverted and mysterious charm to full effect) has spit-roasted his beloved dog to the sounds of property-commercial ready violins in a moment of desperation following a lower class uprising in the titular tower block.
The film, of course, is not subtle about its allegory – the apartments are a self-contained society which the inhabitants only leave to work (although, that eventually is abandoned) and the late 70s/early 80s setting confirms that Thatcher-era England is what’s being dissected. Comparisons to Bong Joon-ho’s exhilarating dystopian action film Snowpiercer, which contained a society in a train that continuously circumnavigates a frozen earth with a nightclub, sushi bar, and (most memorably) a propaganda-filled kindergarten, are easy to make. Lower classes are on the bottom floors “in all types of shadows” (to quote Elisabeth Moss’s dissatisfied housewife Helen), and fight for equal share of the electricity and access to the pool. The upper floors live in a perpetual costume party, complete with rooftop gardens, horses, and orchestras playing ABBA’s SOS.
Every movement is imbued with a brilliant dark hilarity, the absurdity making Wheatley’s satire blissfully fun and lively. It’s a tone balanced skillfully by Hiddleston, Evans, and Moss, with short appearances from Jeremy Irons’s cynical architect Royal. Wheatley’s fast-paced spiritual adaptation of the novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard gives an impression of the novel being read before used to fuel a fire in the apartment block itself. He’s unwilling to please here, and those not wishing to come along for the ride need not apply.
It goes without saying, of course, that the titular high-rise is one of the stars of the film. Production designer Mark Tildesley has filled the brutalist block with lavish 70s kitch that makes the film a feast to look at. Uniform browns, oranges, and blues decorate the lower floors, outfitted with identical translucent windows. Littered with crayons and drawings and toys dragged from one apartment to another, they give a sense of hippie community, also embodied by the anti-establishment documentary filmmaker Wilder (a firebrand Luke Evans).
It’s Wilder that leads the charge to the pool that starts the uprising, a child’s birthday party suddenly leaving the cake for a revolutionary act. If High-Rise was attempting to be more intellectual, this would’ve been the place for a commentary on the indoctrination of children into beliefs before they understand them. But Wheatley doesn’t seek to make such observations, ones that would’ve resulted in a film that’s less fun and more pretending to be something that it’s not. Instead, it’s a study of human behaviour, the heightened situations where ugly personalities emerge into the open. “The real dangers are the self-contained types like you,” an upper class resident tells Laing. “Perhaps you’re right,” he replies.