HIGH-RISE. Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Augustus Prew. and Elisabeth Moss. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong themes, violence, sex scenes and nudity). 110 min.
This British sci-fi thriller is based on a 1975 novel of the same name written by British novelist, J. G. Ballard. It is about a group of residents, who live in the same apartment building, and whose lives decline socially and morally as they become isolated from the world outside.
A multi-story, high-rise building has been built on the outskirts of London by a famous architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). His building provides state-of-the art architecture for privileged, modern living, and has been built with resources, such as a supermarket and a primary school, that provide few reasons for anyone wanting to leave. It gives residents almost everything they need. The building represents "a future that has already taken place", but it also provides the mechanism for social and moral dysfunction. It warns of a collapse of social and moral order.
The building's floors divide classes of residents. The wealthy and privileged live toward the top, and lower socio-economic residents occupy less luxury floors below. One resident, who lives in a high floor of the building, is surgeon, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston). He has an affair with a promiscuous, single mother, Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), who lives above him, and he befriends a student, Munrow (Augustus Prew), who throws himself from the 39th. floor of the building. No Police bother to investigate. Law and order disintegrate, and constant malfunctions of the infrastructure are catalysts for escalating tension among the residents.
Charlotte lives above the lower-class, rebel leader, Wilder (Luke Evans), but below the architect of the building, Royal, who lives above everyone else in his pent-house apartment, where white horses roam in its gardens. In the violence and class warfare that breaks out between the floors, a resident who makes an effort to leave the building is killed by a group of lower-floor residents. The film ends with apartments in ruin, and residents dead, including Royal, who argued that his building represented "the opportunity for profound changes in future ways of living". Royal is killed by Wilder, who succumbs to the temptations of the immoral life going on above him. He deserts his pregnant wife, Helen (Elisabeth Moss), for the pleasures of life above, but is judged as socially unsuitable by nearly all the residents who live there.
The film shows brutal violence, strong decadence, and rampant hedonism. It clearly merits its restricted M classification, but tackles major social and moral issues in a thought-provoking way. Under Wheatley's direction, insults morph effortlessly into violence, and the social, physical and psychological survival of the residents is put under immense threat. The high-rise building is powerfully symbolic of structures in Society that entrap people morally and socially by its technological and social constraints. Such is the degree of entrapment, that one asks whether those who make the choice to stay in the end, are ever free to actually go.
Residents all throughout the building whirl out of control. Tom Hiddleston's performance as Robert Laing is nuanced and impressive as the self-possessed, educated professional, who finds himself on the path to a mental breakdown - which is captured vividly in the film's startling opening sequence. Many scenes in this film are not for the faint-hearted in the level of moral decline that they show, and the visuals of the movie most of the time show a degrading absence of humanity.
This is an original, and unsettling social-surrealist movie that targets, with creeping horror, some major ills of modern society. It delivers its messages metaphorically, and with fierce, dramatic, unrelenting force. The provocative thoughts are there, but unfortunately the sordid visuals too often overpower them.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released August 18th., 2016