Back in my senior year of high school, the theatre guild I belonged to was working on a production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros as the winter play. Being a group of arrogant, intellectual teenagers going to a school in a very liberal city, we prided ourselves on this choice. Along with our board, we hired a young 20-something, fresh out of what I assume to be some type of liberal arts program, to direct the show. He helped guide us to the humor in Ionesco’s dark absurdist work, and turned the cast’s performances closer to a sharp, satiric edge. One day, he announced to the ensemble that he planned on choreographing the finale of the play to ABBA’s 1975 pop hit “SOS,” and we all laughed in his face. “ABBA? That old, corny band?” we said. “That’s way too silly, people won’t understand that this play is saying something serious, something important!” We ridiculed the idea away, and our director reluctantly acquiesced, still personally convinced it would work. Behind the song’s pop production sheen he heard a desperation, a sadness couched inside the saccharine sound.
That mix of desperation and sadness hidden behind a pleasant smile must have been in the air in 1975, for that same year, JG Ballard published his novel High-Rise, which 40 some years later is the latest film from the filmmaking team of Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley. Jump (the screenwriter and co-editor) and Wheatley (the director and co-editor) specialize in films that are either about or take place in a bubble of insanity, whether that bubble is completely insular, or between a young couple, or inside a field in England, or covers an entire high rise building as it does here. They bring their propensity for manic intensity to Ballard’s intellectual, societal satire, and the mixture results in the most aesthetically engaging experience I’ve had all year.
With the exception of a few scenes set at a nearby hospital, the film takes place entirely within the eponymous high rise building, fashioned as it is for every need its inhabitants could want: a gym on one floor, a supermarket on another, and so on. New resident Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston, once again expertly mercurial) is a true believer in the building at first, enamored with its promise of a new way of life and its potential as a “crucible for change” as its architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) puts it. Laing attempts to follow the rules while being a good neighbor, meeting (and in some cases, bedding, as with the enigmatic Charlotte, played by Sienna Miller) his fellow tenants all the way from the bottom floors to the penthouse. Indeed, the building is separated by class, with Royal’s penthouse of opulence clashing against more modest, cluttered spaces that working class folk such as Wilder (a never better Luke Evans) and his lonely wife Helen (a sublime Elisabeth Moss) reside in. As tensions escalate and lines are crossed (one altercation early on involves a war over who gets to use the building’s pool at what time) the entire building devolves into an orgiastic, hedonist, debauched party, regardless of class. Ballard’s setup for the insane proceedings is one that’s been seen elsewhere, particularly in the David Cronenberg film Shivers, which is also set in a high rise building that steadily devolves into a psychotic orgy. Cronenberg was clearly a fan of Ballard’s work, having later in his career adopted his novel Crash (not that one; the one about people turned on by car accidents), so Wheatley’s High-Rise is simultaneously a progenitor and descendant of that film. Additionally, the “class warfare in a pressure cooker space” may remind some of Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, itself a political satire about the separation and subjugation of the classes. But while that film explores the sickly symbiotic relationship between the front and back of the train, High-Rise is more concerned with the psychoses present within the entirety of the building. Everyone will go mad in a different way depending on whether they live on top or below, but they will still go mad.
Despite being analogous to several other works of speculative fiction, High-Rise’s visual identity is uniquely its own thanks to Wheatley, Jump, director of photography Laurie Rose and production designer Mark Tildesley. Tildesley gives each character a unit of space that visually defines them, and tracks their growing and changing insanity throughout the film. The fact that each space is attuned to either a character or a function conveys the idea that the building is a microcosm, and allows the film to not be filled with drab hallways but rather shift from retro modernism to aristocratic French period piece and everything in between. In that way it echoes Michael Crichton’s Westworld, with its dystopian view of both a technological future and out-of-control nostalgia. Rose and Wheatley shoot these sets with an authentic eye to 70s era films, peppered with visual flourishes all their own, such as one gorgeous shot of Hiddleston trapped in an elevator that’s been completely mirrored, doubling his visage into eternity. Jump and Wheatley bring their signature editing style to the proceedings, cutting to image rather than plot or logic. In their previous film, A Field In England, they presented a show stopping sequence that made the viewer feel as if they’d taken hallucinogenic mushrooms. Here, they present a bravura montage whereby the entire building becomes a dystopia, bypassing large amounts of what could be plot and turning it into a visual fantasia, startling image laid over startling image.
The visuals of the film also do the heavy lifting thematically, as the dialogue is obscured to the point of absurdity. Part of the film’s (and Ballard’s) satiric aim is to juxtapose a very British blithe attitude with extreme debauchery and/or violence. As a result, the film is both interested in politics (the final lines of dialogue are in fact a sample from a speech on capitalism by Margaret Thatcher) and strangely apolitical. Some may find this quality to irreversibly muddle any message the film has to offer, but High-Rise is a film that operates on a level that films such as Burn After Reading and Blue Velvet do, which is that the messages you will likely take away from the film will be what you bring to it. That said, I believe Ballard, by way of Wheatley and Jump, is very much exploring the psychological effect of living in a separated class/capitalist society. What other choice has any rational human being but to go mad when confronted with such a day-to-day struggle?
There’s a sadness and a desperation in that notion, and it’s brought out beautifully by Clint Mansell’s score, as mercurial as the film’s protagonist. Flitting from baroque, lush orchestral pieces to sparse synthesizer tones and back again, he tracks and accentuates the dichotomies at play. Nowhere is this more apparent than his arrangement of, yes, ABBA’s “SOS” during a party scene, the pop ditty sounding oddly ill-at-ease in such an incongruous setting. This performance is one-upped two thirds of the way through the film, when UK trip-hop royalty Portishead perform a mournful, searching version of the song. It’s a perfect marriage of sound and visuals, and the band believe so wholeheartedly in this union that they refuse to release the recording in any way other than in the film itself. Sixteen years after my school’s production of Rhinoceros, ABBA’s “SOS” is choreographed to a tale of society collapsing in on itself, and I hope my old director is finally vindicated. He was right all along.
High-Rise is now playing in select theaters and is available to rent from most VOD services.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on May 14th, 2016.