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High-Rise review

SPOILERS!

Act one, scene one. A dog is lured to slaughter. Barbecued by the main character out of desperation, reduced to basic animal instincts. The allegory of the film is contained within this first sequence. The camera cuts indiscriminately between head, hands, object and corpse. The camera, like most Ben Wheatley films, is handheld and on the shoulder. Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) narrates the scene, taking reference from sociopathic estate agents (or their customers)[1]‘Redrow London’ incites class war with images! https://vimeo.com/115968280. This opening gives fair warning to the viewer that nothing will be saved from the cold logic of authority (objectification) and resource accumulation (both materially and socially).

THREE MONTHS EARLER (intertitle): Laing moves into a building made up of around 40 floors, with four more towers being built close by. He paces the room, touches the sides of his large apartment, but never unpacks. Parties are held, and slowly the violence increases.

Cuts are consistently kept to the industry standard of 2.5 to 4 seconds[2]See http://www.wired.com/2014/09/cinema-is-evolving/. A close-up of Laing. A close-up of Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a medium-shot of a character under a single light. A wide shot of a living room or lobby area. After the ‘party’ begins, this is the pattern for the most part, though with increasing debris pressed up against the walls. The most interesting element of the whole film (and what felt like a reference to UK voting tendencies) is that regardless of the chaos, murder and rape, everyone leaves for work and simply drives back. “The building will settle”, Laing and the architect repeat assuredly.

Throughout, static long shots are juxtaposed to profiles and close-ups, the effect being a sort of disorientation between the two (the obvious metaphor being the maddening environment that surrounds the characters). However due to the speed of cut, the effect of contrasting one to the other never quite frames the action coherently. Instead, sequences feel rushed and out of sync, the space never being explored nor the frenetic energy of the actor’s lunacy.

Essentially, I hoped both types of shot and cut would be extended in opposite directions to the point of breaking (or total incoherency), eventually crashing into each other much like the structures they attempt to portray.

Dialogue is arbitrary, and spontaneous declaration/self-assessment lands heavily (one or two in the cinema giggled at a particularly ‘philosophical’ aphorism from Laing). Wheatley seems to accept the novel as scripture, instead of cutting out unnecessary lines where the performance (or the camera) overrides it’s requirement.

The producer Jeremy Thomas has owned the film rights to High-Rise since its publication, and it is interesting to learn that Nicolas Roeg was initially set to make the film in the late 70s, roughly around the production of Bad Timing (1980). In that film, violence, exposition, performance and montage are used to fragment the structure and illustrate the contingency between chance, action and tragedy, a technique that would have been complimentary to Ballard’s source material.

In Wheatley’s film not much else occurs except for increasingly violent acts against each occupant in a bid for control, and whilst it is clear Wheatley is an accomplished director, none of the parts assembled are put to use.

After all is done and we again see the barbecue, the final image emulates a cartoon strip, as bubbles float across a clear blue sky and a voiceover from Margaret Thatcher declares private enterprise, not the state, as the correct path to individual freedom and democracy. The result of the two-hours is an archetypal story of savagery unchained from a social contract – Thatcher’s quotation thrown in to try and connect the seemingly unexplained violence to a political context whilst justifying its 1970s set design.

The current government has continued the absurdity, violence and exploitation of Thatcher’s, and while High-Rise manages to stage (via middle/upper class white desire) the repetitive and tribal nature that class violence often takes, it fails to trace an ideological underpinning, or its conditions. “Economics are the method, but the object is to change the heart and soul” is another Thatcher proverb; a parable of this transformation is within the film, yet it only begins at the very end.