Ben Wheatley, a man that needs no introduction around these parts, is one of the most interesting and bold filmmakers working today—with a filmography that stretches across the genre with witty dark comedies to the hyper-violent masterpiece Kill List and the out-of-this-world mind fuck that is A Field in England, nobody quite does it like Wheatley. And that’s what makes High-Rise his most intriguing effort to date, because despite boasting an A-list cast and having the largest budget of any of his previous films, it’s also one of his most complicated movies. In it, life for the residents of a tower block begins to run out of control when human society slips into violent reverse.
I can tell you guys right now that this is not going to be a very good review of High-Rise, simply because I’m pretty sure this movie went right over my head. Like most of Wheatley’s stories, you can expect no hand-holding here, as High-Rise is a film that begs for multiple viewings and deeper translations—in other words, it’s a very intricate tale that shines a punishing light on society and those that desire to have it all. And like I said, since this movie went right over my shit, I’m not going to try to analyze it and make sense of it all. So what I will do, instead, is talk about what I liked about the movie and why I think some of it got lost in translation (for me).
This is by far and large the best looking movie Wheatley has ever made, grounding his surreal narrative in lavish sets and the kick-ass cool of the 1970s tying it all together. And one thing that his movies all have in common—other than them being mostly insane—is that Wheatley creates an immersive world inside each and every one of them, building an atmosphere that draws you in because there’s always so much to be explored. Wheatley is brilliant at that, and such is the case with High-Rise. Nearly the entire movie takes place within the walls of a tower block, yet the movie itself feels massive and complex—it touches on what life is like inside such a place, the rich lifestyle these people lead and that underneath their smiles is a stirring want for more; it really is a brilliant and altogether terrifying depiction of them, making their ultimate downfall that much greater.
But where this one lost me was in that very downfall, a turning point for the film in which the high life becomes a nightmare. I have not read the novel that this movie is based on, so I can’t comment on how the two compare, but High-Rise is sold as this story about class warfare erupting in a luxurious apartment block that turns it into a vicious battleground. That sounds epic in scale and menacing as all hell, but the problem is that the movie never quite feels that way. What was supposed to be a war felt more like a bunch of people collectively losing their minds and not even for a second questioning what was going on.
It was a weird tonal shift and it comes without much of a warning—one second they’re all smiles and parties, and then the next they’ve gone completely mad without ever even acknowledging it. Death and carnage was the new norm to a bunch of high class folks? Instead of drinking expensive wine they’re now eating dogs and horses? Huh? And all the while bodies were piling up in the hallways and the building was becoming a trash-filled ruin, not a single person thought maybe it would be a good idea to leave? Again, this could have something to do with the movie going over my head but I just couldn’t quite get a grasp of what was going on in its second half.
That all being said, if you dig Wheatley’s stuff (as I do) then you’re going to find a lot to like about this one (even if you don’t understand everything that’s going on). And outside of it being all sorts of weird, this is a pretty wild ride that feels right at home with the rest of Wheatley’s filmography.