By Gabriel Renggli
There’s a tall building. Some people live at the top. Some at the bottom. Do you get it?
If you don’t get it, don’t worry, director Ben Wheatley has you covered. Before long, the people at the top will dress up as French aristocrats for a party (and where’s a guillotine when you need one?). If that’s still too cryptic for you, there’s an excerpt, at the very end of the film, from an actual speech by the Iron Lady. Which is silly, because very few people will be moved by this of all films to exclaim in genuine surprise: “You know, I think Thatcher may actually have been wrong! Well, I never!”
For those who are not put off watching this film by the sheer crudeness of its metaphor, there is the utter lack of imagination in the filmmaking to consider. There’s hardly a scene or image in High-Rise that does not seem lifted from some other work (and yes, I’m aware it’s based on a novel by J. G. Ballard).
From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it takes the general setting: the roof garden above, the hellhole below. A lot of the tone seems lifted from American Psycho, as are some details: montages of morning showers, going to work, working out, a lot of gory stuff that no one really seems all that worried about, and the main character’s tendency, at the slightest provocation, to wear an expensive suit). From Lord of the Flies, it takes the “well, that escalated quickly” direction of the storyline. (The keyword is “quickly.” These people start eating their pets after a few power cuts. I would start looking for a flat in a different building. But maybe that’s just me.) And what happens next looks like it might have been left on the cutting-room floor of Snowpiercer, a film operating under the same misguided belief that staging a vastly simplified version of social conflicts under highly artificial conditions is the same thing as analysing or commenting on those conflicts. (Idea for a film-studies project: edit all the Jeremy Irons clips from High-Rise into Snowpiercer and all the Ed Harris clips from Snowpiercer into High-Rise.)
Then, of course, there’s the problem that this is one of those films in which the majority of characters are rather unpleasant people. This can work, especially in comedy, but also in drama and thrillers, if the characters are interesting. Here, everybody is simultaneously so stylised and so devoid of interesting features that it is impossible to get involved. Which means that once the violence starts, there’s nothing at stake, neither suspense nor payoff.
All of which raises the question why I’m still writing this review, instead of just telling you that, in my opinion, this is not worth seeing, and then letting you get on with your lives. Well, that’s because the real problem with High-Rise is its utter lack of analysis of its subject matter. And in view of the many enthusiastic reviews the film is getting, because of how well it is made at a technical level (for instance by Glenn Kenny, writing for the widely respected and usually unerring rogerebert.com website), this lack strikes me as a problem worth thinking about.
In the spirit of fairness, let me credit everything that is fantastic about this film. Tom Hiddleston is mesmerising although he hardly does anything. The cinematography is about as good as cinematography can get. The sets, the costumes, the production design in general, are excellent. It features what may well be the single most chilling use of an ABBA song I have seen in a film (to get an idea, youtube “Portishead SOS”). But none of this is enough. It is the form, but it falls flat because there is no content for the form to interact with. All we are told here is that wealthy pricks are—you guessed it—pricks, and that people, wealthy or poor, are likely to react to extreme circumstances in extreme ways. Ignoring the massive lack of thought at the heart of the film simply because High-Rise looks good and at times feels weird and “in your face” risks erasing the difference between a good weird, technically well-made film and a bad weird, technically well-made film.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking for a “message.” Certainly not for a moral backbone. Not even necessarily for a plot. There are good weird films that don’t exactly go out of their way to tell a story, or to tell you how you should feel about what you see. Some of these films have been widely recognised (Ex Machina, for instance, which goes in for a similar mixture of glossy look and violent undercurrent/build-up, has a mystery at its centre, but not a lot of story). Some of these films are cult classics, or stand a good chance of becoming one (Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is built around a non-character, yet his actions, although they do not appear to impact him, do impact the audience: the filmmaking is such that we get involved). Some of these films have not been seen by enough people (Michael Kohlhaas, starring Mads Mikkelsen, manages to be as bold and uncompromising as it is disciplined and understated).
The presence of Drive in the above list tells you that I have nothing against a provocative, shocking work of cinema. And all three of these examples, to some extent, eschew mainstream gestures, to instead become engrossed in the experience of certain situations—raw situations, in all three cases. That, I believe, is what High-Rise should have done. Instead, it is enamoured of its own surface, and by being so, it becomes the one thing that no film, from blockbuster to arthouse, should ever be: boring.
Nothing whatsoever is accomplished here. All the pieces are set up, and then the escalation escalates. What a surprise. In the end, you may be numbed by some of the violence, but the film delivers no insight and no emotional punch. And that is why, in all honesty, I would rather watch a mainstream phenomenon like House of Cards (which does deliver insights and emotional punches), whilst waiting for the next good arthouse film to come around and intrigue me and shock me and haunt me long after the credits are over.
I mentioned violence. There is one scene in High-Rise (and a brief return to it during a montage) that seems intent on punishing you for watching it. I am not easily impressed by violence in films, but in this case I will take the hint. I will not watch High-Rise again.
★★ (out of six)