High-Rise: Brutalism, by David Bax
Harsh, unforgiving, unmalleable, misanthropic. These words do a pretty good job summing up the demeanor and philosophy offered by Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, based on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel. They could also be used to describe the architecture and aesthetic of the titular structure where most of the story takes place, as well as the fascistic control Wheatley yields over the tone and presentation of the film itself. High-Rise is such a textbook example of formalism that it ought to be taught in film schools. That doesn’t always make it a pleasure to watch but Wheatley’s vision is executed with such astounding thoroughness, the result is undoubtedly an impressive one.
Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Robert Laing, a neurosurgeon in an alternate version of 1975 England, who moves into an experimental, utopian new development that offers every amenity for every income. Lower income folks like Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and Wilder (Luke Evans) live on the lower floors; middle class strivers like Laing or single mother Charlotte (Sienna Miller) live above them; and the top floors are preserved for the upper crust, like Pangbourne (James Purefoy) and the high-rise’s own founder and architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons), who occupies a massive penthouse complete with rooftop garden and menagerie.
Wheatley’s fastidiousness about design and style, from the oppressive, brutalist 1970s building to the exhaustively of-the-moment hair and clothing, sometimes makes High-Rise feel like a nightmare version of Mad Men, polemically asking us to consider our present through the lens of a twisted past. Class inequality and the capitalist systems that foster it are of great concern to many modern audiences and Ballard’s transparent parable brings them to the forefront. Most of the building’s (read: society’s) problems come from the fact that each economic strata spends far more time looking up at those above them than they do worrying about those below.
Important as such issues are, were High-Rise to stick to a dry and dialectic explication of them, the result would likely be tedious. Luckily, the film has deeper pursuits in mind. Royal’s vision for the building and its community is a dogmatic one. An attempt to exert so much control over humanity, the movie argues, will effectively cut off the circulation to the people as a whole. Humanity is a part of nature and the imposition of man-made systems (class and capitalism being just examples) endeavors to separate the two. The high-rise, it would seem, has everything, from a gym to a pool to multiple grocery stores (rumor has it there’s even a brothel) but it noticeably lacks anything approaching a park, a tree or a blade of grass. The inhabitants are surrounded by concrete and steel, Formica and shag carpeting. Only Royal’s terrace, on top of the 40th floor, contains greenery. But it’s only open to him and, even then, it’s more a simulacrum of nature than a taste of the real thing. Wheatley illustrates his point about the effects of such dissociation with a close-up tracking shot of untended apples rotting in the market’s produce bins.
Things fall apart, as they must, for those in Royal’s tower of milk and honey. They do so quickly at first and then continue out of sheer inertia. At the first sign of collapse, when the electricity starts to fail, everyone from the bottom to the top has the same idea, which is to throw a party. For many, the celebration continues in some form or another throughout the film, even as garbage starts to pile up and fights break out in the corridors. In a place so far removed from the natural order of things, it seems, the most insane thing would be not to fiddle while Rome burns.
Through it all, the massive and wondrous building itself stands tall and strong. The images of disintegration against an unerodable backdrop exemplify Wheatley’s alluring pessimism. High-Rise is a stark and uncompromising film but it’s also, at times, a beautiful and compelling one.