You expect a movie to be weird, and then you watch it and it’s WEIRD. So it goes with Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s classic sci-fi novel. Steeped in a 1970s aesthetic consistent with the publication of Ballard’s book, High-Rise is stylish and highly visual, packed with stunning images that range from the beautiful to the absurd to the grotesque. Wheatley demonstrated such command of visuals before, but High-Rise is a new high water mark. And it’s one matched by an aces performance from Tom Hiddleston, who has a found a new gear over the last couple years.
High-Rise starts disturbing and then gets f*cking bizarre, so strap in. A word of caution: Bad things happen to animals. There’s no on-screen cruelty, but it’s heavily implied, to the point that the mere appearance of a dog elicits dread. Depending on your tolerance for that, this may or may not be the movie for you. But the animals factor into the visual language of the film, as the most prominent, err, victims are a white dog and a white horse. White horses, in particular, come with a lot of narrative baggage. Good guys ride white horses. If a horse is magic or special, it’s usually white (see also: Artax, Shadowfax, Silver). So the sacrificing of a white horse carries extra weight, as it represents the destruction of goodness.
The film is full of such commentary. Heavily-pregnant housewife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), is seen in plain cotton dresses, but sexual, care-free Charlotte (Sienna Miller) wears bright colors and patterns and loose, flowy clothes. Until Helen’s husband, volatile would-be revolutionary Richard (Luke Evans), rapes Charlotte, and then she’s seen in the same kind of plain, housefrau type clothes. It’s not subtle, but the way Wheatley uses every available item on the screen to create contrast is striking.
The story, however, doesn’t quite live up to the weirdness of Wheatley’s style. The film revolves around Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston), a new resident in a high rise apartment bloc. He’s obviously proud of his new home, and attempts to get to know his neighbors only to find he doesn’t quite fit in like he wants to. Like Snowpiercer’s train, the high rise is a metaphor for class, with the lower floors rebelling against the residents of the upper floors, who hog the power and water. Unlike Snowpiercer, High-Rise can’t quite sustain its metaphor.
Some of the elements work really well, like the subplot in which Laing takes revenge on an upper-floor resident who humiliates him, but others don’t, such as pretty much every part involving women. It’s not that bad things happen to them—at one point it’s mentioned that “wives are being traded for food”—it’s that there is so little effort made to shade them in as people. Moss and Miller are memorable, but neither of them really have a lot to do. Miller’s character exists only to be f*cked and abused, there’s no sense of her as a person beyond how men are using her. And Moss is perhaps the biggest waste, as Helen does nothing except be pregnant. The condition of poverty and child-rearing on women is left unexamined.
So it makes for an uneven experience. There is a lot to dazzle in High-Rise, and some very good performances to enjoy, but there’s also a bit of an “emperor without clothes” feeling. Characters stand around having on-the-nose conversations about driving the poors from the building, which undercuts the artful visuals telling the exact same story. It feels a bit like the audience isn’t trusted to really get it, but it’s not a hard concept to grasp in the first place. And by virtually ignoring the women in the story, it’s a half-told tale. Laing is our protagonist, fine, but it would be boring to watch a movie about him interacting with a vacuum cleaner and a bucket. That’s a bit the feeling here as Helen and Charlotte barely register as people. Ultimately High-Rise is a beautiful, visual, somewhat frustrating art piece.
High-Rise is available now on digital on demand and will be in limited theaters from May 13.
Attached - Tom Hiddleston out in New York this weekend at the White House Correspondents' Dinner and at Anna Wintour's house for a pre-MET Gala dinner.