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High-Rise Review: Anarchic, Suffocating, Immense And Near-Spiritual - You Will Love Or Hate It

[LFF 2015] Ben Wheatley's sci-fi will sicken and delight.

Rating: ˜…˜…˜…˜… I f**king love Ben Wheatley. Not only does he make daring, challenging movies, but he manages to consistently divide the critics (and audiences) in doing so. At a time where every film is viewed to have some quantifiable level of quality and the key of criticism is to get your rating as close to the universal average, rather than provide a proper, personal assessement, he's an anarchic presence who begs you to think independently. Divisive just doesn't cut it - he makes the Marmite debate look petty (pettier?). His movies sit as decidedly average on the likes of IMDb, but they are as far from the norm as possible. High-Rise is no different. Production-wise Wheatley's a far cry from location shooting in Sheffield - his first adaptation (of J.G. Ballard's novel), it's a subtext driven-story (a high-rise segmented by class is the setting of violent uprising) offering a vastly increased playpen to destroy (the budget is two hundred and fifty times his debut feature) and a cast of A-list stars (Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller) - but this still has that same sometimes-comic, sometimes-horrific darkness, if anything amped up with the higher stakes. There's no safety net and no consolations, and he pulls it off. Broken down this is a seventies sci-fi, not just in the way it tackles a key social issue - the droning commentary (and almost-liveable dystopia) brings up flashes of Fahrenheit 451 - but in that the aesthetic is a future idealised from the time Ballard wrote his book; the eponymous building is garish brutalist architecture and the classical parties of the upper floors have string bands playing ABBA. Hiddleston's Robert Laing describes himself existing in a "future already lived" and that's the design ethos through and through here. Although at first he's hard to read, Laing is the most interesting thing here; he's a passive participant in the tower's downfall, periodically narrating his life and walking through both normality and destruction almost detached, to the point where you can shrug off some of his more questionable acts because he's so placid elsewhere. It's reminiscent of the sudden murderous outbursts of domesticated hitman Jay in Kill List, telling a key element of the source that no doubt appealed to Wheatley.
That's what makes High-Rise so delectable - when all is said and done it is a Wheatley film. Like all his other movies, there's a suffocating air of unknowing dread that hangs throughout; a sense that something is slightly off, but you can't quite put your finger on what. For some it'll be oppressive, for others enlightening, making the film an immense, near-spiritual experience. I think that is the core of Wheatley's divisive nature - he's unsettling on a subconscious level, conflicting with internal prerequisites. Layered on top of this is a refusal to shy away more oblique points of contention. Once again the director delights in pulls-no-punches visceral imagery - the opening scene ends with Tom Hiddleston in a dirty, tattered suit sat on a balcony nonchalantly spitroasting a dog's leg, while smoking a cigarette and staring off into the distance - while his treatment of the passage of time is looser than the tower block's order, the social collapse itself not fully apparent until the whole thing's already descended into riots and tribes. How you take these moments will hinge almost entirely on how you instinctively react to the background unease. Not that the film is all delirious fun and games - even I'll concede there's one part where things didn't gel. Throughout High-Rise is building to something and you spend the run-time trying to guess whether it'll be something akin to the stomach-churning rug-pull of Kill List or the perversely cathartic wrong-footing of Sightseers. What it is isn't either of those things and, while it works, in retrospect the tying up of the plot and thematic threads is a bit too loose to make as big an impact as the set-up. But hey, isn't that all part of the fun? High-Rise is a Ben Wheatley film, and that's really all you need to know. Seen as part of the London Film Festival 2015.
High-Rise will be released in 2016.
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Film Editor (2014-2016). Loves The Usual Suspects. Hates Transformers 2. Everything else lies somewhere in the middle. Once met the Chuckle Brothers.