Thrills Go Out The Window In Gorgeous But Garbled "High-Rise"

J.G. Ballard’s 1975 class warfare novel High-Rise has long been thought unfilmable, a would-be movie fated to an existence of fanzine and internet chatter. “Don’t Look Now” director Nicolas Roeg nearly made it his follow-up to David Bowie vehicle “The Man Who Fell To Earth; “Sexy Beast” producer Jeremy Thomas struggled to get it made ever after. But exactly forty years after the book’s publication, English filmmaker Ben Wheatley unspooled his film version at the Toronto International Film Festival. The response? Hordes of festival goers wishing it had stayed unfilmed.

It’s not just that this particular thematic material – the pathology of classism and violent social tumult – is rubber without much remaining tread depth (Joon-ho Bong’s remarkable “Snowpiercer” is just the most recent movie to cover similar ground). It’s that Wheatley’s vision for the material is so myopic and one-note, resulting in a stylish but almost unbearably aloof drama that willfully bucks thrills for a Post-it note-thin replication of Ballard’s text.

The picture begins on a paint-splattered Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) spit roasting a dog on the balcony of his ruined luxury apartment, a war zone where war couldn’t possibly exist. Then Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump draw back three months, slowly pulling back the curtain on how things went so wrong. In this case the tale isn’t in the telling; the rest of the film is rarely as evocative as its prologue.

Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Elisabeth Moss co-star as some of Laing’s fellow tenants, each representing different levels of the building’s social stratum. Evans and Moss are lower middle class parents, Miller is an aspiring socialite, and Irons is the tower’s architect, living in luxury on its topmost floor. As Hiddleston’s character gets to know his neighbors and cracks start to form in their relationships, the screenplay cracks, too. These are underdone, unrelatable characters with nothing much to do. And they’re consistently overshadowed by Wheatley’s undeniable knack for atmosphere.

Moreover, “High-Rise” is such a literal adaptation of its heavily allegorical source material that it stops being allegory altogether. The end result is the opposite of metaphor, with Ballard’s words adapted so plainly that there’s nothing left to interpret or mull over. It’s all there on screen, stranded halfway between “Dredd” with all the action cut out and “A Clockwork Orange” without the incisively dark sense of humor.

If audiences aren’t put off by the coldness of it all, they’ll likely be worn down by the total dearth of momentum in the picture’s second half.

There are bright spots, the brightest being an incredible montage set to a goosebump-inducing cover of ABBA’s “SOS.” Wheatley’s history as a short film maker intermittently rockets to the surface, bringing with it a palpable sense of ingenuity and verve. There’s some luscious imagery here that nearly tricks the brain into wonderment. (Clint Mansell’s excellent score only adds to the illusion). And the 70s period trappings are equally on point, the pornstaches and shag carpeting never belying the futuristic bent of the story.

But narrative listlessness always seeps back in, with the story eventually stalling out all together. The laborious third act promises fireworks but delivers none, turning into a surefire slog for all but Wheatley fanatics. A slow burn such as this requires some kind of pay off; a modicum of catharsis. Here, there’s nothing at all but an unceremonious denouement that marks an end to a film that almost never was. Maybe it should have stayed that way.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: May 13, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriter: Amy Jump
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language and some drug use)