On the rights and wrongs of Ben Wheatley's approach to adapting J.G. Ballard's High Rise
High-Rise Magnolia Pictures
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenplay: Amy Jump, based on the novel by J.G. Ballard
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Elisabeth Moss, Dan Renton Skinner, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Augustus Prew, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Louis Suc and Peter Ferdinando
Rated R / 1 hour, 59 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
The handsome young doctor in the shiny grey suit takes a bucket of paint - the last bucket in the store, an almost entirely neutral grey, but with a noticeable gleam of metallic blue in the right lighting - and slathers it indiscriminately across the spotless, off-white walls of his once-immaculately tidy 25th-floor apartment. It's the sensible thing to do. Just like that, he's turned something controlled and clean and sterilized into a hideous abstraction. The world really has gone mad, hasn't it.
In a sense, director Ben Wheatley has done the opposite. He's taken an abstract, chaotic thing and turned it - or at least attempted to turn it - into something crisp and concise. A hallucinogenic nightmare into a carefully constructed narrative. I'm not talking about adaptation, mind you. Nor even source material, necessarily. J.G. Ballard's High-Rise is plenty concise in its narrative, and mostly linear. Concept is what I'm referring to - and concept plays very differently on the page than it does on screen, when you're visually, physically, bringing it to life. That Wheatley's adaptation is more or less "faithful" is kind of beside the point. Such fidelity would only matter if the filmmakers could do with cinematic language what Ballard did with written language. It's the nagging concern that pervades this film version throughout - that Wheatley wasn't quite the guy for it, even as his take on the material proves consistently entertaining in spite of itself.
My kingdom for a Terry Gilliam version of this movie. That's the first thought that crept to mind, anyway. In fact, it seems to have been a thought that even crept into Wheatley's mind. One of his most memorable images is that of a tilted television set sitting atop a makeshift trash heap - a news broadcast blaring anachronistically, like an unheard dispatch from a discarded past - that directly recalls the opening of Gilliam's Brazil just after the terrorist bombing. For that matter, one of the figures roaming around the titular complex is a near doppelgänger for a type of character perfected by Gilliam collaborator Michael Palin, especially in their Monty Python days. Played by Augustus Prew, Munrow - a medical student from a rich family - is foppish and absurd and sports a silly mustache. An upper-class twit if there ever was one.
But then, Munrow becomes less and less of an absurdity and more of a barometer for the decadent anarchy that sets in as the wheels of High-Rise start turning. Indeed, the relative peace we're ushered into early on - and in which the aforementioned handsome doctor, Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a newcomer to the high-rise, has already become accustomed - doesn't last long. The high-rise is not just a dwelling but an entire community, an entire neighborhood. You could stay there and never leave and have everything you need (and some do just that, at least eventually), which is part of the point, and the heart of the problem. Schools, gyms, grocery stores, pools, restaurants, bars - all an elevator's ride away, or a quick walk up a flight of stairs. It's like a vertical, stationary Snowpiercer - and, as the film moves along, every bit as segregated and ruthless as that arctic train.
Extravagant parties degenerate into perpetual lifestyles, where drinking never ends and mornings never begin. Supermarkets become overrun and picked-over, the shelves never re-stocked and the employees indifferent. Fights break out over pool privileges. Stairwells are barricaded to keep out the Others. The expansive parking lot with its rows and rows of expensive automobiles remains packed even on workdays, with the residents of the building opting to stay in ... or forgetting, in some manic fever, that there's a workplace or an outside world to get to at all. The stairwells and hallways become littered with garbage bags and animal carcasses and piss and shit and vagrancy. The authorities are nowhere to be found - nor any but the self-appointed authority figures lucky enough to be on the highest floors. Class and power are wielded as the weapons they intrinsically are; nothing, and no one, gets in or out. Laing is stuck astride competing instincts - to make sense of, or try to tame, the hysteria that's set in, or embrace the tempting sense of freedom it offers. For Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), it becomes a cause, and he the high-rise's greatest outlaw - much to the chagrin of the increasingly militant Pangbourne (James Purefoy) and his fellow self-appointed upper class warriors. Wilder's pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), in effect the most innocent of the central characters, is caught in a cultural crossfire. The building's own Dr. Frankenstein, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), has a detachment bordering on aloofness, and seemingly no control over the society he created. And all the while, Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) - the beautiful, chain-smoking mistress of both Wilder and Laing - is having a laugh, resigned to a fatalistic bemusement at the whole thing.
The film, in keeping close to the 1975 novel, is set during the same time period, but it increasingly seems to exist outside of time, especially as technology, social mores and moral order cease to really matter, before breaking down completely. Costume parties, fashion eras, professional uniforms - all intermingle to the point that they're individually divorced of all meaning. The society built in this high-rise is, naturally, microcosmic (a fact spelled out a bit too directly in some of the writing), but it descends so rapidly and so thoroughly that the joke is ultimately on everyone. The higher floors are full of cut-off noses and spited faces.
High-Rise is well-cast and enjoyable, and to its credit, has at least an ongoing flirtation with surreal nihilism. Wheatley's film is attractive and at times quite striking, but it's never aesthetically daring. It doesn't feel like we're in the madhouse, but like we're watching the madhouse on TV. Wheatley has a handle on the material, I think, but approaches it like a detached documentarian. It's never much of a psychological experience - it's neither disorienting, nor scary, nor hallucinatory - so we observe rather than participate. High-Rise gives us madness without ever becoming madness.