Fire off Ben Wheatley’s many qualities as a stylish genre experimentalist, and fleetness of foot probably won’t be among them. Up to this point his feature films have all achieved a certain degree of thoughtful reverie, insinuating us into the private lives of marginalized characters and thrilling to the subversion of stereotype, or in the case of A Field In England, the accidental ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms. Gangsters and hit men sit on their duffs while a couple of squares go on a killing spree and drugged-out soldiers dig for buried treasure. Different as they all are, they bear Wheatley’s signature for laconic action and pursue few big ideas outside the strangeness of their own premises. So it comes as a surprise that Wheatley adapts his style along with J.G. Ballard’s novel for his latest feature, High-Rise, a big-idea story if there ever was one, hitting the ground running and maintaining its breathlessness the entire time it’s charting the progress of Ballard’s well-respected parable of social disorder and collapse.
High-Rise nearly reaches the point of full-length montage due in part to its faithfulness to Ballard’s own detached bemusement and to Wheatley’s professed obsession for storyboarding, mirroring the effect that such an obsession had on last year’s jaw-dropping Mad Max: Fury Road. Wheatley and writing and editing partner Amy Jump also understand they’re working with an oft-told tale that runs the risk of going as stale as Lord of The Flies with a JV football team. They pitch narrative weight altogether, choosing instead to savor the delectabilities of high class excess, low class indulgences, and the middle ground where the two mix and become indistinguishable. The novel doesn’t convey its message as a lesson for us to learn so much as an inevitability of the human condition, so Wheatley and Jump choose not to belabor the point, apart from perhaps a very pointed audio sample heard at the very end that ties into their decision to set the story in an alternate late 1970’s, anchoring any social commentary alongside Ballard’s original context (and letting the production and design teams go hog wild, to boot).
Taking a note from a key scene when a resident falls to his death, marking the point at which things officially spiral out of control, the movie never slows its fall, and it’s falling from the very beginning. Tom Hiddleston is the lead functionary, Dr. Robert Laing, whose harmless intellect and position endear him to people from all floors, from Jeremy Irons’ top story architect Royal to Luke Evans’ blue-collar documentarian Wilder, while he draws the eye of Sienna Miller’s party girl and Elizabeth Moss’s blank housewife. Through his social dalliances we witness the upsurge in uprisings, clashes, and reprisals with glazed eyes, floating from one filthy scene to another while brief shots of the parking lot show the destruction creeping further and further out. Even the neutral Laing, so famously introduced roasting a dog leg for dinner on his balcony, can’t deny the temptations of the savage life, and at least one good laugh comes from Royal waving off a police officer who just so happens to wander into the vandalized lobby wondering if intervention is needed. Their belief that things will work out okay, if they aren’t already, gains additional insight when paired with the running gag about a grocery store cashier who teaches herself French, finding in this whole mess a hope for self-improvement.
The fall into oblivion might never cease, but late into the movie it becomes at least a little apparent that Wheatley and Jump struggle to know how best to flail their limbs, contriving a final showdown between Laing and the main trio of violent aristocrats despite the onset of a comfortable sustained chaos. It may serve to complete Laing’s arc, but this adaptation is far and away more concerned with atmosphere. Despite a hiccup or two like this, High-Rise confirms one thing, and that is that Wheatley and Jump deserve money to be thrown at them. More than anyone they display a knack for retaining their work’s identity and integrity while wrangling an increase in budget, talent, and expectations. Marathon their movies and you might not believe this picture of madness is even theirs by virtue of its scope and polish. But with a game cast and crew, they crown the story first and foremost, and make a deliriously potent potion out of High-Rise.